WASHINGTON -- President Obama told 16 Jewish leaders on Monday that he is battling a perception that he is pressuring Israel more than Arab nations and the Palestinians and revealed he has written to every Arab government telling them they must help the peace process.
"People were very direct with the president in expressing their views," said Alan Solow, the Chicago attorney who is the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations after the afternoon session in the White House, Obama's first formal meeting with U.S. Jewish leadership.
Obama "placed his policies in context for people to understand why he is taking the approaches he is taking," Solow said.
The leaders from the 14 organizations invited by the White House, while united in strong support for Israel, have divisions over Obama administration policies, such as the demand he made in his June 4 speech in Cairo for a halt of Israeli settlement expansion in the Palestinian West Bank.
The contentious issue of settlements came up several times during the meeting, with some of the groups concerned that Obama was asking more from Israel than from the Arabs and Palestinians.
According to a source familiar with what occurred at the 45-minute meeting who briefed me, Obama said that he was pushing Arab and Palestinian leaders too, but the press was focused on finding divisions between the U.S. and Israel. Obama said he has created historic new credibility for the U.S. with Arab states that should not be squandered.
The White House declined to provide details of the session. It did provide a list of participants, but did not at first even disclose the event on Obama's daily schedule, which routinely notes meetings with groups.
The White House invited representatives of 14 organizations including Chicago business executive Lee Rosenberg, the president-elect of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Of the nine Obama administration officials at the meeting, five were from Obama's core Chicago group: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett; Jewish community liaison Susan Sher, who is also the chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Obama and Tina Tchen, who runs liaison operations.