Obama meets the Jews: interpretation is everything

JTA is reporting that a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations met with President Obama on Tuesday and that the meeting went well, with Mr. Obama expressing his undying commitment to Israel’s security and the assorted Jewish leaders proclaiming themselves satisfied – at least on the record.

Off the record, I had calls from activists on both sides of a deeply divided pro-Israel community, with some on the right saying the president was aggressive on the issue of settlements and that he seemed to put much more of the onus for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian stalemate on a “stronger” Israel, other participants saying that they saw little new at the meeting, and certainly no signs of hostility to Israel.

Pardon me if I don’t shout “Stop the presses” like a chain-smoking editor in Citizen Kane. We’ve heard this enough times before to know the routine: the Presidents Conference includes a pretty wide range of Jewish groups, and at every one of these sessions presidential statements are filtered through individual ideologies and expectations in ways that make accurate reporting of what happened extraordinarily difficult.

After several conversations about the meeting, a couple of things seem safe to say:

– The President is frustrated

– The President is hoping Jewish leaders here can play a role in convincing the Netanyahu government that settlements really ARE a problem.

– The President is aware of concerns about Israel’s growing isolation, and believes the remedy is to find some way forward in the peace process

– The President has no new schemes up his sleeve for getting past the current Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

That last point was evident as well in senior adviser Dennis Ross’s speech to J Street on Monday. While saying “Our efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace are ongoing, even when they are less visible” and talking about “ticking clocks,” I’m increasingly convinced Ross’s real message to the pro-peace process group was this: don’t get your hopes up about any dramatic new U.S. initiatives. With the Middle East in a state of unprecedented ferment and with little indication either Netanyahu or Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is ready for bold steps, the White House is in wait and see mode when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Which gets me back to yesterday’s White House meeting. I wasn’t there, and I’ve done enough of these stories to know that when they touch on the volcanic Middle East, interpretation is everything.

Over at Politico, Ben Smith quoted a participant saying “Those who have concerns about the President and his policies were not converted and those who don’t have problems were not given cause for concern.” That seems about as good a description as I’ve heard.

What I wonder: do these meetings actually help administrations – especially since in every single case, participants come out with such widely different interpretations of what happened? Or is this just about checking the Jewish box, and making sure pictures of a bunch of leaders in kippot sitting around the table with the president appear in Jewish newspapers?

Don’t blame Obama; this has happened with every recent president, Democratic and Republican.

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.