WARSAW — Within hours of arriving Friday in this once-occupied capital, President Obama encountered the enduring emotion surrounding the state of Israel, founded as a sanctuary from the virulent anti-Semitism that wiped out much of this nation’s Jewish population during World War II.
As his first stop in a two-day visit, Obama visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, then traveled to the Ghetto Heroes Memorial, where he laid a wreath at the base of the stark bronze relief commemorating the tens of thousands of Jews killed in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.
About two dozen members of the city’s Jewish community gathered to watch the ceremony, and Obama greeted them afterward. Taking his extended hand, a woman told him, “It’s the only Jewish state we have and we trust you.”
Last week in his speech at the State Department, Obama called for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to begin based on the boundaries that existed on the eve of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
He made clear a final agreement over territory would likely include land exchanges to accommodate Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But his proposal angered Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who called those prewar lines “indefensible.”
“I will always be there for Israel,” Obama told the woman.
To a man in a kipa, the Jewish skullcap, Obama also said, “We will always be there,” another likely reference to U.S. support for Israel. “I promise.”
The White House said the visit to the memorial, which concluded with a group photograph of Obama with the Jewish audience, had been planned well before the State Department speech. Obama promised to get the photo to all of those in it with him.
The exchange at the historic site of Jewish persecution began a presidential visit meant in part to mend relations with Central and Eastern Europe, a region that has great affection for the United States for its role in World War II and anti-Soviet position in the following decades.
But some of the region’s leaders worry that Obama, in his eagerness to “reset” relations with Russia, has placed Russian interests above their own. Obama met Friday evening with the leaders of 18 European nations, the majority of them from Central and Eastern Europe, to assure them of his commitment to their security.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the National Security Council’s senior director for European affairs, said the purpose of the leaders’ dinner was “finishing the unfinished business of Europe in the post-Cold War era.”
She said Obama also wanted to hear from the leaders — here for a summit of their own — about the democratic transitions that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, in light of the uprisings challenging long-standing autocracies in North Africa and the Middle East.
“These countries that moved along towards democracy at the end of the Cold War have great experience to share with those countries that have not yet made that transition,” Sherwood-Randall told reporters.
Obama arrived here from Deauville, France, where the Group of Eight summit concluded Friday with a call to encourage democratic reform in North Africa and the Middle East.
In a summit declaration on the Arab Spring, the group characterized the uprisings as “historic,” adding that the changes underway “have the potential to open the door to the kind of transformation that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
But the leaders, as a group, declined to pledge a specific amount of financial aid to Egypt and Tunisia, nations that have already overturned autocratic governments, or to other countries now in revolt.
Instead, the group noted that development banks and other multilateral institutions have as much as $20 billion to loan to Egypt and Tunisia through 2013 for what the declaration called “suitable reform efforts.”
The declaration also noted that G-8 members are in a position to provide more financial help on a bilateral basis, as Obama announced last week in outlining $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt. British Prime Minister David Cameron also has pledged $180 million to Arab Spring nations.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he hoped another $20 billion in loans would come from the International Monetary Fund and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, kingdoms and emirates concerned by the region’s anti-government demonstrations.
On the summit’s last day, Obama also met with Sarkozy. The two discussed, among other issues, the military campaign in Libya.
France is a playing a leading role in the NATO-led effort, which began with a heavy assault on Libya’s air defenses and other military targets led by the United States. Since then, the U.S. military has assumed a supporting role. Some European leaders have pressed Obama to contribute more to bring the campaign to a decisive conclusion.
Speaking afterward, Obama said the two agreed that “meeting the U.N. mandate of civilian protection cannot be accomplished when Gaddafi remains in Libya directing his forces in acts of aggression against the Libyan people.”
“And we are joined in resolve to finish the job,” Obama said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Obama on Thursday that Medvedev, too, believed Gaddafi had lost his legitimacy to lead, administration officials said. Russia has never expressed that position before and has often criticized the NATO-led mission against Gaddafi for exceeding the U.N. mandate. Russia has a longer history with Gaddafi than the American administration, and its position further isolates the Libyan leader.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama and Medvedev didn’t discuss “a great detailed plan of action.” But, he said, the two agreed “that there needs to be forward movement in Libya on the political side.”
“There’s an agreement that the Libyan people deserve a better and different future and that we are going to be in close touch with the Russians as they pursue their conversations with the Libyans,” Rhodes told reporters.