September 25, 2018

Obama meets with Jewish leaders to prepare for Israel trip

In a private White House meeting, President Barack Obama told a diverse group of Jewish leaders  that he “was not going to deliver a grand peace plan” during his upcoming two-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In  what one participant called “an honest and substantive exchange” concerning the President’s upcoming trip, the President told some 20 Jewish leaders at the Thursday morning, March 7 meeting that it would be “premature” to present such a plan. Sources at the meeting asked that their names not be used because participants were told the meeting was to be strictly off-the-record.

“I assume this is not a shy group,” the President reportedly said in opening the discussion in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

The participants mostly represented major Jewish and Israel-advocacy organizations. Among those present were Alan Solow, Lee Rosenberg and Michael Kassen of Aipac, Barry Curtiss-Lusher of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the Amertican Jewish Committee,  Jerry Silverman of Jewish Federations of North America, Rabbi David Ellenson, Janice Weinman, Hadassah, Nancy Kaufman, National Conference of Jewish Women, Lori Weinstein, Jewish Women International,  Steve Gutow, JCPA, Alan Dershowitz, former Cong. Robert Wexler, Dan Mariaschin, B'nai B'rith, Steve Rabinowitz, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street; Debra DeLee president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now; businessman and philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder; attorney and author Alan M. Dershowitz; Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wisenthal Center, former U.S. Congressman Mel Levine, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, the Orthodox Union's Nathan Diamant and National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) Chair Marc R. Stanley.

Presidential aides Tony Blanken, Valerie Jaret and Ben Rhodes also attended the meeting.

The President “wanted to seek input from a diverse group of leadership,” one participant said.

According to another, the President said he recognized “the region was in turmoil as a whole.”  Obama said he would take the opportunity of the trip to “connect directly to Israeli people.”

The President told the group he plans to visit places of importance to Jewish people.  Afterwards, some in the group speculated this could mean a presidential side trip to Masada.

“We assume he didn't mean Hebron,” said a source.

The approximately two-hour meeting began at 11 a.m. with the participants sitting around a large, oval table under a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.  The President first spent five minutes giving an “overview of his thinking” about the trip, then primarily listened as the participants offered their suggestions and insights on a wide range of topics.

While a second source declined to go into specifics, the topics included the Iranian nuclear threat and the Middle East peace process.

“People suggested he say certain things,” said a source. “One person thought he should toughen his rhetoric and become more clear on Iran.  He really pushed back against that. He said he needs to leave room for diplomatic resolution. He said he was not going to do 'extra chest beating' just so people think he's tough.”

“He said Iran needs to be able to climb down without humilaiation.”

While participants touched briefly on the situation in Syria and Turkey, much of the discussion centered on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

“He did say that part of Israel's security in the long term was wrapped up in Israeli Palestinian peace,” a source said.  “He will probably suggest a framework, but not a plan.”

The President also reportedly added, “it's not enough to want peace, what are you going to do for peace?”   

The trip later this month trip will be the President’s first visit to Israel since taking the office in 2008.   The two-day trip will include a two-hour visit to Ramallah, the capital of the PA-controlled West Bank.

The visit comes on the heels of an Israeli election whose results are still unclear.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to form a government.

“The President was sensitive to that,” said a participant.  “But there will be a government by the time he arrives. There will be a Knesset.  Shimon Peres will be President.”

Formal invitations for the meeting went out Monday, and full details of the session remain confidential.

“The President wanted to emphasize the friendship that exists between the United States and Israel,” said a source, “and his desire to uphold that.”

“It was a very diverse group of people,” another source said.   “People from the right, people from Peace Now. Everyone got to say their little piece.  There was no unified message at all.”


Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.