The meeting was described by nearly a half-dozen participants as cordial, led by a president who, after an early setback attempting to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, appeared far more self-assured and with a policy more in line with those of his guests than in previous encounters.
The gathering was not listed on the president’s public schedule, and some participants spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount the discussions. Some said Obama engaged most energetically, although never angrily, with those with whom he most disagreed.
In one exchange, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, expressed concern that Obama might be softening his pledge to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, based on recent reports of frustrated international diplomatic efforts.
Obama has said his policy is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, not containing the Islamic republic if it does achieve that capability. Vice President Biden made the same point earlier this week in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but Hoenlein asked Obama what actions he intends to take to stop it, according to participants.
“I’m not going to beat my chest to prove my toughness on this,” Obama said, according to participants.
Obama continued by citing a quote attributed by some to the Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu, who suggested that a “golden bridge” must be built to give what Obama described as a “proud people” a face-saving retreat to a diplomatic solution.
“The president outlined in general terms what he hopes to accomplish during his trip,” said Robert Wexler, the former Democratic congressman from Florida who attended the meeting as the director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
“All of that was underlined by the president’s commitment — the reiteration of his commitment — to an unprecedented security relationship with Israel and with the president’s desire to have a meaningful conversation with the Israeli people,” he added.
Obama is scheduled to leave in just under two weeks for his first trip to Israel as president. He will also visit the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan, whose leader, King Abdullah II, is facing growing public unrest over his family’s long rule of the desert kingdom of strategic importance to the United States.
Obama has met with Jewish leaders before, including a seminal July 2009 meeting held a few weeks after his call for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world in Cairo.