Thursday, February 19th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
Days after a conference call with Jewish leaders to allay concerns about the administration’s decision to send representatives to preliminary meetings for the controversial Durban II conference (see the Jewish week story here), the White House liaison office on Thursday gave Jewish leaders a chance to grill former Sen. George Mitchell, the special Middle East envoy.
In what two participants described a “tour de force,” the senator-turned-diplomat expressed the administration’s “unshakable” commitment both to Israel’s security and to a two-state solution to the conflict.
The call revealed both a determination by the White House to keep Jewish leaders in the loop as officials formulate their Mideast plans – and to listen to a range of views.
Questioners on Thursday’s call included leaders of the Conference of Presidents, the Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, but also the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, J Street and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom – pro-peace process groups that didn’t have much input to the Bush administration.
The OU’s Nathan Diament urged Mitchell to delay a planned trip to the region because it might fuel the perception the administration is meddling in that country’s electoral mess; Mitchell rejected the appeal, saying the administration has been very careful not to express any preferences about the outcome. Several pro-peace process activists urged Mitchell to speak out against settlement expansion; he declined, saying that the administration has not yet sorted out its priorities for the region and that so much has changed since his 2001 report, which identified settlements as a critical problem in the region.
He told the Jewish leaders that the United States is uniquely positioned to help bring about a resolution to the conflict but agreed that the divided Palestinian leadership makes the job harder.
Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), said Mitchell displayed an “impressive understanding of the nuances of the different positions with the Jewish community. He was incredibly diplomatic, but not afraid to disagree.”
“It’s a fine beginning to Sen. Mitchell’s effort that he is reaching out to and listening to the views of the American Jewish community across the spectrum,” said OU political director Nathan Diament. “His careful and determined approach to the effort is certainly impressive.”
Another participant said the call “was not particularly revealing” about how the administration will pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace in today’s harsh international climate, “but it displayed a strong desire to hear different viewpoints in the Jewish community, which is a real change from the last eight years.”