J Street's Ben-Ami on the Big Obama Meeting

It must have been quite a sight, Jeremy Ben-Ami from J Street sitting with Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Really Major Jewish Organizations during yesterday's big White House palaver on the Middle East. There's a lot of resentment of J Street among New York professional Jews, but they're going to have to get used to J Street's presence at the table. I asked Goldblog Deputy Editor for Global Jewish Affairs Tali Yahalom to put a few questions to Ben-Ami about the meeting, where attendees discussed everything from the Bush administration to how good President Obama looks in a kippah. Here is their conversation:

Tali Yahalom: What was the atmosphere like during yesterday's meeting?

Jeremy Ben-Ami: The president sets the tone and the president is sort of serene. There's very much a sense of calm and thoughtfulness and it makes for a much more harmonious feel even when there's disagreement. I think the president sets the tone of 'we're talking within the family.' He even referred to this several times as an 'intra-family discussion.'

TY: Was there any tension in the room?

JB: I don't think any of that contentiousness really came into the room. The few comments that were made that were pushing the president were made in a very respectful and calm manner. And the president then respectfully and calmly pushed back. The whole conversation was done in a very appropriate tone and manner.

TY: What kind of comments?

JB: One is Malcolm Hoenlein's, and he's said this publicly, that he feels that history shows us that progress is made on the peace front when Israel and the U.S. are in lockstep and there's no daylight between them on their position publicly. And the president said 'With all due respect, I would disagree. For eight years under the prior administration, there was no daylight between the two sides and there was no progress on the peace front, and no hard decisions were confronted, no progress was made.' He very politely, but very clearly, disagrees with the notion that there shouldn't be a public space between the Israeli government's and the U.S. government's position. I think that's a very important point.

And the second example would be a question of tone, where there are those in the room who would say that the president has been one-sided in his demands. And that he is only asking things of Israel, and the president really again pushed back, very calmly but firmly, and said no, that he has on every occasion, where he has spoken out publicly, and where the [U.S.] government has taken a position, made it clear that there are obligations and steps that must be taken by Israel, and obligations and steps that must be taken by Palestinians and the broader Arab community. If we're going to make progress, both sides have to live up to commitments and both sides have to take some steps.

TY: Was anyone who disagreed with the President tense or annoyed at all? Was anyone muttering under his breath?

JB: I felt none of that. The majority of the people in the room are folks who were supportive of the president's campaign. There were people in there who were lay leaders of organizations that are very supportive publicly of the president. People in the room who have had long relationships -- not me -- but people in the room who have long relationships with him, so it sort of set a tone of congeniality. So you know, even within the top leadership of the Jewish community, there are those like Eric Yoffie, on behalf of the Reform movement, who just come right out and say 'we are deeply supportive of what you're trying to do on settlements.' You got that tone in the room.

TY: What was it like to be in the room with so many right-wing leaders? Was anyone resentful of your presence?

JB: Certainly none of our inter-community discussions entered the room. It was not the place or time to be airing that out in front of the president. Statements made were of people's positions. The president got to hear a diversity of opinions that are held by Jewish Americans when it comes to Israel. There are some in the community who'd like to maintain that the Jewish community should speak with a unified voice on all things related to Israel. That simply isn't possible when there are serious disagreements within the community.

TY: Is Obama speaking differently about the Jews and Israeli-Palestinian issues? Has there been a change in tone?

JB: I didn't hear any difference yesterday. I've heard a real consistency from the president throughout the campaign and throughout the early stages of the administration in his public speeches and again yesterday. A real consistency. I don't know that I hear a difference in tone. He is very clear that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is a solid fundamental relationship and the security of Israel will always be a paramount interest to the U.S. -- he even said it in Cairo.

TY: The meeting was called in response to concerns from different Jewish leaders. Was there a sense that this was a meeting to do some crisis control?

JB: I would disagree on that notion. There is a small handful of Jewish leaders ... who are publicly voicing their skepticism. There's a much broader array of people who are providing support. I think the purpose of the meeting was to allow a range of leaders and a range of groups to hear directly from the president what his strategy is, what he's thinking and what he's trying to accomplish.

TY: What is the significance of Obama using the word 'pressure' rather than something milder like 'encouragement'?

JB: He's talking about the very strong role for the U.S. and it grows out of a recognition that when parties have a dispute, it often requires an outside hand, and it's not enough to say to the parties -- as we've said in prior administrations -- that you talk amongst yourselves and figure it out. It's not enough. They'll ultimately have to agree. There can't be a solution which parties don't buy into, but the president, and the feeling among many scholars and diplomats, is that without an active U.S. leadership in achieving a resolution, it's not going to happen.

TY: So is this the new paradigm for how Obama is going to deal with Jews on issues related to Israel?

JB: The Bush administration spoke primarily to and drew support from a very limited portion of the community. I think what the president and the White House did yesterday was try to broaden the tent and bring to the table a set of voices that do reflect the diversity and the range of views within the Jewish community.

TY: Do you think the concerns of Jewish leaders who worry about Obama's stance are alarmist?

JB: I think the concerns about Barack Obama's support for Israel are misplaced. He clearly is approaching the issue from a deep sense of concern over the future of Israel, and in our opinion at J Street, and many others in the Jewish community and in Israel, he's correct in having that concern. The alarmist issue describes views of some of the more right-of-center leadership. They have been alarmist about raising concern about the president's support for Israel, which in our opinion is simply unquestionable.