Dizzying spin on this week’s White House meeting

I thought I was done with this week’s meeting between President Obama and a group of Jewish leaders assembled by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, but the spin surrounding the meeting keeps reverberating in pro-Israel circles.

It seems to me the event is almost a textbook example of the difficulty of reporting the news on anything touching on Israel and the Middle East.

Shortly after the meeting, I heard from several participants and read several news accounts, all suggesting that it was pretty typical of such meetings – with the requisite presidential proclamations of support for Israel and concern about her security, words about the necessity of finding some way past the current impasse (there’s always an impasse, in case you haven’t noticed), some talk about the dilemmas of the Palestinian leadership.

Not a huge story, but then I talked to an impassioned activist whose memory of the meeting was completely different – to say the least.

Since he declared the call off the record at the outset, I’m not going to name him, but I’ll tell you what he told me: at the meeting Obama “confirmed our worst fears about his hostility to Israel.” The President, this activist said, put all the onus for the current stalemate on Israel, and seemed to be urging the assembled Jewish leaders to pressure the Netanyahu government to make concessions, even while signaling that it was satisfied with Palestinian performance.

So: two totally conflicting views of the same meeting. Where is the truth?

When writing about presidential meetings, we always have to factor in a number of complicating variables.

Many organizational leaders have a vested interest in portraying every White House meeting as congenial and positive, even when they aren’t; the idea is to present a solid front in support of the idea U.S.-Israel relations are as close as ever.

That’s why the officials statements issued by the organizers are invariably blandly positive – pablum, in fact. For that matter, it’s the reason White House statements about these meetings reveal as little as possible.

Other participants in these meetings have a vested interest in portraying them negatively because of their political or ideological perspectives. Some ardent Democrats stress the negative when meeting Republican presidents, the positive when meeting with Democratic ones. Republicans often do the reverse.

And there are the myriad personal perspectives participants bring into these sessions that color the way they hear what’s being said – a coloring that often takes on a particularly intense charge because, well, this is the Middle East we’re talking about, and everything involving the future of Israel is intense.

Sorting all this out and extracting real news from this outpouring of spin is difficult, to say the least.

In the case of this week’s meeting and the strongly negative spin that worked its way into some news reports about the session, I redoubled my efforts to hear as many views of what happened as possible.

I also called several participants who generally share the spinner’s ideological perspective for a reality check.

None of these confirmed that disturbing interpretation of what went on in the White House.

Instead, what I heard pretty much across the board was about a President who stressed his commitment to Israel’s security, his openness to hearing from a diverse community, his frustration with the current Israeli-Palestinian impasse, his hope that both sides will become more forthcoming, his wish that American Jews will continue to be part of that.

Was I spun by those with a vested interest in presenting an image of comity in U.S.-Israel relations?

Maybe. But with presidential meetings – as with so much in the sphere of U.S.-Israel relations and Jewish politics – the best we can do is seek multiple perspectives and try to understand the competing interests that color perspectives in myriad ways. And then take our best shot at the truth.

For more on the subject read Ben Harris’ blog over at JTA and our own Rabbi Gerry Skolnik in his “A Rabbi’s World”column.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.