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Obama to Jews: Peace is essential but prospects are bleak

President Barack Obama, left, talking with Chief of Staff Jack Lew, center, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they walk on the colonnade of the White House, shortly before the president announced Lew as hs nominee to replace Geithner as treasury secretary, Jan. 10, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama, left, talking with Chief of Staff Jack Lew, center, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they walk on the colonnade of the White House, shortly before the president announced Lew as hs nominee to replace Geithner as treasury secretary, Jan. 10, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama believes prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace are “bleak,” but he still will urge both sides to avoid unilateral actions that might further damage a process he hopes will be back on track within a year.

That was the message Obama delivered Thursday in a meeting with about 25 Jewish community figures at the White House to discuss his planned trip to Israel later this month. Obama was especially engaged, participants said, when it came to discussing how he might best convey to the Israeli people his enthusiasm for Israel and its Jewish history.

Participants were under strict instructions to speak to news media only in the most general terms, and most of the participants contacted by JTA hewed to that stricture. Two participants, however, shared notes on the particulars and a third confirmed those accounts.

According to the partipants, Obama appeared weary and was emphatic about not bringing any “grandiose” plan for Middle East peace to the region. He said he would, however, counsel the parties against making “unilateral” moves. He did not elaborate, but U.S. references to unilateralism generally refer to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Palestinian attempts to achieve statehood recognition.

Obama reportedly rejected an entreaty from one participant to stake out a harder line on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, emphasizing that a military option was still on the table even though he preferred to first exhaust diplomatic options. Officials from the major powers, led by the United States, are meeting with Iran in Istanbul later this month to negotiate terms for making Iran’s nuclear program more transparent.

Obama said he would not engage in “chest beating” to make people feel better. He also said it’s natural for the United States and Israel to have differing assessments of how advanced Iran is in its nuclear quest. Such differences are a matter of interpretation, the president said, and exist within Israel’s political and security establishments as well.

When he goes to Israel, Obama plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still attempting to cobble together a government after January’s election. Obama also will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and will travel to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah.

Obama told the Jewish participants that he thinks prospects for peace are “bleak,” but added: “That doesn’t mean six or nine or 12 months from now we won’t be in the midst of a policy initiative.”

Obama said he would tell the Israelis that “the prospects for peace continue to go through the Palestinians.”

A White House official confirmed that the president would not be seeking a specific outcome from this visit.

“The president noted that the trip is not dedicated to resolving a specific policy issue but is rather an opportunity to consult with the Israeli government about a broad range of issues — including Iran, Syria, the situation in the region and the peace process,” the official said. “He also underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to speak directly to the Israeli people about the history, interests, and values that we share.”

Obama seemed more enthusiastically engaged, participants said, when he was seeking input from them on how best to reach out to Israelis and make them feel secure about the U.S.-Israel alliance. The exchange took up the bulk of the meeting, with Obama fielding more than a dozen questions and suggestions over 45 minutes.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said that he counseled the president to emphasize the Jewish connection to the land.

“I underscored the need for him to go to a place where he can both symbolically and in his statements speak about the millennia of connection between the Jewish people and Israel,” said Diament, who spoke under conditions that allowed participants to relay their own words to reporters.

Israeli and U.S. officials for weeks have grappled with which venues would best convey Obama’s outreach effort. One factor is security; Israeli officials have told their American counterparts that securing Obama outside the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor is daunting, which limits his options. Aside from the official meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and dinner at the home of President Shimon Peres, who will present Obama with a medal, nothing has been confirmed. A visit to Jerusalem’s Old City is still under consideration, as is a tour of an Iron Dome missile defense battery, a system Obama funded and which successfully protected Israel from rocket attacks during the Gaza Strip war last November.

Obama wants to speak to “young people,” White House officials have said, and Israeli officials reportedly are working on a venue that could accommodate a large crowd of university students, probably in Jerusalem.

In a separate interview with JTA, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said Israelis are looking forward to the visit because of the message it will send.

“In terms of Israel, the timing of the trip could not be better because it reassures us in a period of profound instability throughout the region, and sends an unequivocal message throughout the region about the strength and vitality of the U.S.-Israel alliance,” Oren said.

In addition to the Orthodox Union, participants at the meeting included representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, B’nai B’rith International, the Conservative and Reform movements, the Anti-Defamtion League, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women International, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Influential supporters of the president also were in attendance, including Robert Wexler, Mel Levine, Steve Rabinowitz and Alan Dershowitz.