President Obama to Jewish Leaders: Every Time I’m on Al Jazeera They Show Me at the Western Wall with a Yarmulke On

Jul 13, 2009 5:56pm

In the Roosevelt Room this afternoon, President Obama met with 16 leaders of the American Jewish community for approximately an hour, discussing the Middle East peace process, Iran, health care reform and global hunger.

Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, tells ABC News that the president — joined by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod, both of whom are Jewish — spoke for approximately 10 minutes about his strategic vision for Mideast peace.

“He talked about Israel as a Jewish state with no hesitancy,” Forman said.  “He also reiterated what he has said before about the fundamental bond between Israel and the United States and the fundamental commitment the US has, no matter what disagreements there are, to Israel’s peace and security.”

One participant said that the perception is that the Obama administration is applying more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas recently seemed to suggest to the Washington Post that all the concessions that need to be made are by Israel, and Palestinians can wait it out until Netanyahu's government fails.

The president, Forman said, argued that the media sometimes plays up disagreements between the US and Israel – the US pressuring Arab countries is a “dog bites man” story, the president said — and he assured the participants that he has applied just as much pressure on the Palestinian Authority as he has on Israel in steps towards peace.

The president said that in Arab media he’s depicted as being too pro-Israel. 

Every time I’m shown on Al Jazeera they show me at the Western Wall with a yarmulke on, President Obama said.

“And you look good in it, too,” one participant in the meeting joked.

Another participant argued that Israel negotiates for peace from a stronger position when its leaders feel there is no public disagreement between Israel and the US.

The president disagreed, Forman said, saying that  while it’s essential that Israelis are convinced of America’s deep commitment to Israel’s safety, his administration has to be honest about family disagreements. But he reiterated that progress in the peace process isn’t just Israel’s responsibility, and said Israel deserves credit for recent steps including opening up roads and providing more access for Palestinians in the West Bank.

A representative from another one of the groups present tells ABC News that the president said his administration would have a sense by the Fall if the Iranian leadership is going to “demonstrate seriousness” in terms of re-engaging with the international community. If Iranian President Ahmadinejad chooses to engage, “we have a package of engagement,” and if not, the Obama administration is working to line up other measures.

Forman said the president showed a real comfort level in the meeting, joking and politely disagreeing on occasion.

In addition to Forman, participants included: Alan Solow, Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Lee Rosenberg, President-elect, AIPAC; David Victor, President, AIPAC; Malcolm Honlein, Executive Vice Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Abraham Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League; Jason Isaacson, Director of Government and International Affairs, American Jewish Committee; Nancy Ratzan, President, National Council of Jewish Women; Kathy Manning, Chair, Executive Committee, United Jewish Communities; Andrea Weinstein, Chair, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Marla Gilson, Washington Director, Hadassah; Stephen Savitsky, President, Orthodox Union; Rabbi Steven Wernick, Executive Vice President and CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism; Debra DeLee, President and CEO, Americans for Peace Now; and Jeremy Ben Ami, Executive Director, J STREET.

-jpt

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