Bush Met With Jewish Leaders

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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

CRAWFORD, Tex., June 16 -- As he prepared for a visit this week from Israel's prime minister, President Bush held an unannounced meeting with the top leadership of the United States' Jewish community to discuss the dramatic events in the Middle East and other foreign policy issues.

Bush meets with smaller groups of Jewish leaders from time to time, but the gathering Thursday was the first time he had met with the entire leadership community, about 50 heads of Jewish advocacy, service and religious organizations of different political orientations.

The White House did not disclose the private session on the president's schedule, and officials asked participants to treat Bush's remarks as off the record. Present for the session were the president's most senior aides, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and political adviser Karl Rove.

Several people present provided a general outline of the session, which included Bush giving an opening statement for 10 to 15 minutes and answering questions for more than an hour. The conversation touched largely on foreign policy issues, including the situation with Iran and Syria, the fight against Islamic extremists and -- especially -- the situation in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas's seizure of power this past week has further complicated Bush's faltering efforts to help settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"He has not resigned himself to saying that he gives up," said Malcolm I. Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which set up the Bush meeting. "He's wrestling with it."

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been something of a back-burner issue for Bush in the past year, despite his promise to help create a new Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. But the events of the past week are forcing the issue back on to the White House agenda, and Bush is slated to sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a long-scheduled meeting in Washington on Tuesday.

Bush offered few clues to the Jewish leaders about how he plans to handle the upcoming visit, other than to praise Olmert as a strategic thinker and to say how much he respects him.

The president has not been hesitant about trying to help the beleaguered Israeli prime minister, who is perhaps even less popular at home than Bush is here. The president called Olmert in late April, something of a show of support at a time when Olmert was being harshly criticized for his decisions during last summer's war in Lebanon.

The White House appears to be grappling with how to deal with the stunning developments of the past several days, which saw Gaza being taken over by Hamas, a group dedicated to Israel's destruction, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dismissing the coalition government.

On Saturday, in apparent reprisal for Hamas's military sweep in Gaza, Fatah gunmen stormed the municipal building in the largest city in the West Bank. Men from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah's armed wing, raised the party flag over the city hall in Nablus and ordered the Hamas-controlled city council and its supporters to leave.

With Abbas set to form a new government without Hamas, some Middle East analysts see an opportunity for the United States to reengage on the issue. And they expect Bush to press Olmert to release the long-held tax revenue the Israelis have been keeping from the Palestinian Authority because of the presence of Hamas in the government.

The U.S. consul general in Jerusalem met with Abbas on Saturday and indicated that an international embargo on funds for the Palestinian Authority will be lifted once a new government is sworn in.

"This administration has been trying to figure out a way into this issue. The developments in Gaza have been a real opportunity for the administration to engage in a proactive way," said Larry Garber, the executive director of the New Israel Fund who formerly directed U.S. aid efforts in the Palestinian territories.

But Garber and other analysts noted the roadblocks confronting Bush, Olmert and Abbas, particularly the continuing power of Hamas to shape events on the ground. "I don't think the U.S. strategy to strengthen President Abbas even stands a chance of success," said Haim Malka, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


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