Hilary Leila Krieger
The Jerusalem Post
July 15, 2009 - 12:00am

Several Jewish officials said Tuesday that US President Barack Obama's efforts to reassure them on US policy towards Israel had not assuaged their concerns.

Though they welcomed Monday's intimate face-to-face discussion at the White House and were pleased that Obama acknowledged that some in the community were worried, they said it was insufficient to dispel their doubts about his approach towards Israel.

In the meeting, according to participants, Obama expressed strong support for Israel and acknowledged a 'misperception' that the US was disproportionately pressuring Israel, indicating that the US would be doing more to prod the Palestinians and Arab countries forward. But he also defended positions that have precipitated some of the most public disputes between the US and Israel in years.

The Orthodox Union, which stakes out positions in keeping with a constituency that is largely right of center, was the only organization of the 14 included to issue a statement taking the president to task, while the progressive groups present largely applauded Obama's positions.

But several representatives from mainstream Jewish groups in the room told The Jerusalem Post that they still felt somewhat uneasy following the meeting.

"I am concerned that the Obama administration is falling into the trap of blaming all the problems with the peace process and region generally on Israel," said an official from one such organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He pointed to Obama's comments noting that differences between the US and Israel were inevitable and that the lack of daylight between the Bush administration and Israel had brought little progress on the Middle East peace process.

"This meeting does not allay my concerns because it confirms that this isn't just a willy-nilly decision by some Arabists in the State Department but part of a framework Obama thinks will solve all the problems in the region," he said.

One of the few meeting participants willing to voice his apprehensions on the record, American Jewish Committee Washington Director Jason Isaacson, was more measured in his assessment of the changing US policy in the region.

"To not have questions and not have concerns when the ground seems to be shifting would be [unusual]. Certainly I have concerns," Isaacson said. "I don't think anyone who is paying attention in one hour can have his concerns entirely erased."

He stressed, though, that he didn't doubt Obama's sincerity in his efforts and appreciated his acknowledgement in the meeting that more needed to be done so the US wasn't perceived as pressuring Israel to the exclusion of the Palestinians and the Arabs.

"There was an implicit understanding that the balance of the message needs to be recalibrated, and that was welcome," he said. "I think the outreach was important."

Another participating leader who said afterward he still had "concerns" about the US approach toward Israel, noted that he, too, was pleased to see the administration talking to the Jewish community and to learn that Obama was aware of the queasiness in some quarters.

"I think they understand it. I found them more receptive than some of the Jews who don't want to acknowledge the sense of unease," he said.

At least one participant, though, did describe himself as reassured enough by the encounter to have a new perspective on Obama's posture.

"I'm prepared to give the president an opportunity to test his assumptions and his principles, and the reason I'm prepared to do so is because he reassured me personally, and everyone else there, of the strength of the US's relationship and his and the administration's commitment to Israel. I don't know how anyone could say it more emphatically or strongly than Obama did," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, who noted he entered the room with some anxiety over US pressure on Israel.

Those who praised Obama most strongly following the meeting hailed from the Jewish community's more progressive quarters, many of whom have supported his policies since taking office.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a movement on record as opposed to the settlement growth that has been at the center of tensions between the US and Israel, echoed other participants' concerns about a disproportionate media focus on Israel's obligations, but found the president's response satisfying.

"Generally we believe his approach to the Middle East has been very constructive, very positive. We believe he's a friend of Israel," Yoffie said. "I left impressed by his commitment."

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, arguing that many of those who assailed Obama didn't agree with his basic goals of a vigorous US role in the peace process and support for a two-state solution.

"If you're a reasonable person who is genuinely concerned about the president's commitment, and his administration's, to the long-term viability of Israel as a Jewish state, then you'd have to be impressed by the president yesterday," he said. "If you thought this was a naïve president, who was naïve about what is possible with the Arab world and here, then I think you'd be impressed by his hard-headedness and commitment to Israel."

Forman pointed out that more than three-quarters of Jewish voters chose Obama and maintained that the president is still popular among the constituency as he is overall with Americans.

"There's no evidence whatsoever than the overwhelming support the president had in the Jewish community last November has dissipated," he said, suggesting that those who are displeased by the president are not representative of the broader Jewish community.


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