WASHINGTON — A private meeting Monday held to ease tensions between the White House and American Jewish leaders included a pointed exchange as President Obama said public disagreements between the U.S. government and Israel are useful in the pursuit of Middle East peace, several participants said.
The president's remarks, surprising to some in the room, came as he was questioned about a perceived distance between his administration and Israel -- specifically in his insistence that Israel halt all settlement construction in the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to rule out building new homes in existing settlements, a policy that Palestinian leaders say would preclude their sitting down for peace talks.
Obama, according to participants, said his approach would build more credibility with Arabs, and he criticized the Bush administration policy of unwavering agreement with Israel as ineffective.
"He said, 'The United States and Israel were very, very close for eight years, and it produced very little,' " said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, described as one of the more aggressive questioners during the 45-minute session.
The White House did not release a transcript of the meeting, and participants were forbidden to share direct quotes from the president. But at least four participants confirmed Obama's comments, as did a White House official present at the meeting.
The president's remarks are politically sensitive because he devoted a great deal of time during his presidential campaign to convincing Jewish voters that he would be a staunch supporter of Israel -- but now he appears to some to be willing to test nascent bonds with a key constituency as he reaches out to the Arab and Muslim world.
Some American Jewish leaders have complained that Obama has demanded more concessions from the Israelis on settlements and other matters than he has sought from the Palestinians.
Some Israel supporters were also critical of Obama's speech last month in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he described U.S.-Israel ties as "unbreakable" but also assigned moral heft to the Palestinian cause.
Foxman said he disagreed with Obama's remarks at the meeting Monday, and that showing distance between the two countries gave Palestinians the ability to "play the United States against Israel" in order to gain leverage.
Several other participants agreed with Foxman but declined to be quoted criticizing the president.
Some at the meeting said Obama's arguments were strong.
"I share the same reticence of others in the Jewish community as to his position," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, "but I'm prepared to give him the opportunity to test these approaches and to see if they bear fruit."
Obama told the participants that he was putting equal pressure on Arab countries and Palestinian leaders, sending letters and making public statements in which he calls for the elimination of violence and incitement against the Jewish state.
He also noted that his special envoy, George Mitchell, is negotiating with both the Israelis and Palestinians, and that a compromise on the settlement issue was possible.
The president said he believed there was an unfair perception that he was putting uneven pressure on Israel because the press was more interested in what he described as a "family" dispute.
On the flip side, Obama noted, the Arabic-language satellite channel Al Jazeera frequently airs pictures of him from a trip to Israel, wearing a yarmulke at the Western Wall.