By Scott Wilson
Originally published in The Washington Post, March 7, 2013
Jewish leaders urged President Obama on Thursday to make clear during his upcoming trip to Israel that he will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — and to correct an early diplomatic misstep when he appeared to trace Israel’s historic claim to a modern state to the Holocaust rather than to the Bible.
In a White House meeting that lasted longer than the scheduled hour, Obama listened to leaders of more than a dozen Israel advocacy groups, representing a spectrum of views over the challenges facing the Jewish state at a moment of regional instability and mounting threats.
The meeting was described by nearly a half-dozen participants as cordial, led by a president who, after an early setback attempting to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, appeared far more self-assured and with a policy more in line with those of his guests than in previous encounters.
The gathering was not listed on the president’s public schedule, and some participants spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount the discussions. Some said Obama engaged most energetically, although never angrily, with those with whom he most disagreed.
In one exchange, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, expressed concern that Obama might be softening his pledge to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, based on recent reports of frustrated international diplomatic efforts.
Obama has said his policy is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, not containing the Islamic republic if it does achieve that capability. Vice President Biden made the same point earlier this week in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but Hoenlein asked Obama what actions he intends to take to stop it, according to participants.
“I’m not going to beat my chest to prove my toughness on this,” Obama said, according to participants.
Obama continued by citing a quote attributed by some to the Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu, who suggested that a “golden bridge” must be built to give what Obama described as a “proud people” a face-saving retreat to a diplomatic solution.
“The president outlined in general terms what he hopes to accomplish during his trip,” said Robert Wexler, the former Democratic congressman from Florida who attended the meeting as the director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
“All of that was underlined by the president’s commitment — the reiteration of his commitment — to an unprecedented security relationship with Israel and with the president’s desire to have a meaningful conversation with the Israeli people,” he added.
Obama is scheduled to leave in just under two weeks for his first trip to Israel as president. He will also visit the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan, whose leader, King Abdullah II, is facing growing public unrest over his family’s long rule of the desert kingdom of strategic importance to the United States.
Obama has met with Jewish leaders before, including a seminal July 2009 meeting held a few weeks after his call for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world in Cairo.
The president followed that speech, in which he criticized Islamic extremism, Arab authoritarianism and Israeli settlement construction in the territories it occupied in the 1967 war, with a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
While a moving afternoon in which Obama highlighted the suffering of the Jewish people, the visit — and decision to skip Israel — appeared to locate the modern state of Israel’s right to exist in the Holocaust rather than in the period outlined in the Bible.
For some critics, it became the central example of how Obama does not understand how the Jewish people view the modern state and its historical claims.
Obama’s visit to Israel, which will be focused in Jerusalem, is an effort to reset his relationship not with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has had a rocky one, but with a still-suspicious Israeli public.
Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, said he told Obama at the Thursday meeting that he must reach out not only to young secular Israelis but also to the nation’s growing religious community.
“I emphasized the importance that as part of what he does in that regard is speak, directly and symbolically, to the religious sectors of society and the millennia of connection the Jewish people have with the land of Israel,” said Diament, whose organization is the largest orthodox Jewish umbrella group.
Asked if that would help correct the impression left with Israelis in his Cairo speech, Diament, who attended Harvard Law School with Obama, said, “No comment.”
Obama was also urged Thursday to deliver a message to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom Obama will meet in Ramallah, that Palestinians should not obstruct Israeli peace efforts.
According to participants, Obama said he would. But he added that he also planned to tell Israelis that they must do more than talk about peace.
He said they must also act in a way that encourages an acceptable resolution with the Palestinians, according to several participants.
“And that will be a difficult balance to accomplish,” Obama said, according to one participant.
White House officials said Thursday that Obama had no plans at this point to meet with Palestinian — or other Arab — leaders before the trip.
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting, said Obama during the Thursday meeting “noted that the trip is not dedicated to resolving a specific policy issue.”
“He also underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to speak directly to the Israeli people about the history, interests and values that we share,” the official said.