"Worst than Holocaust," Obama tells reporters on his way out

May 8, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

The New York Times Published: May 4, 2010

WASHINGTON — President Obama had lunch on Tuesday with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, as part of an effort to mend fences with American Jews upset by the administration’s stance against the Israeli government’s construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

The White House effort, which included remarks by senior White House officials before the national leadership conference of the Anti-Defamation League on Monday night, is part of an attempt to reach out to the Israeli public, as well as to the American Jewish community, administration officials said.

Mr. Obama also called the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Monday to discuss plans for indirect American-mediated talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which the administration hopes to begin this week in the region.

But it remains unclear whether Mr. Obama’s latest outreach will reassure American Jews and the general public in Israel, where Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have plummeted.

“The real charm offensive needs to take place in Israel,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel and vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “I would accept it was a charm offensive if he caught a plane and went over there, which he needs to do. He’s lost the Israeli public. If he were to go over there and explain to the Israeli public, it would be hugely beneficial to his objectives.”

The lunch meeting between Mr. Wiesel and Mr. Obama came three weeks after Mr. Wiesel took out a full-page advertisement in a number of United States newspapers criticizing the Obama administration for pressuring Mr. Netanyahu to stop Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians would like to put the capital of an eventual Palestinian state.

The advertisement, in which Mr. Wiesel wrote that “Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul,” alarmed White House officials, in part because it came on the heels of similar advertisements from the World Jewish Congress and grumbling from members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, that Mr. Obama was pushing Mr. Netanyahu too hard.

Mr. Wiesel, who accompanied Mr. Obama last summer to the former Buchenwald Nazi camp in Germany, is widely viewed both within and outside the White House as perhaps more amenable than other pro-Israel activists to some of the concessions which many Middle East experts say Israel will have to make if there is ever to be a peace accord.

At first glance, it looked as if Mr. Obama’s wooing of Mr. Wiesel produced some benefit for the White House. Mr. Wiesel emerged Tuesday from what he described as a “good kosher lunch” at the White House, pronouncing recent tensions between Washington and Israel to be over.

“There were moments of tension,” Mr. Wiesel said to reporters after the lunch. “The tension, I think, is gone.”

However, neither the United States nor the Israeli government has backed down on the dispute over Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Mr. Obama was furious when the Israeli government announced, in the middle of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s trip to Israel in March, approval for construction of more housing in the ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem. That anger spilled out in public, including a tense visit to Washington by Mr. Netanyahu in which the two leaders failed to reach an agreement on the settlements.

“The big question that remains is what happens when there’s a new settlement announcement?” said Robert Malley, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

The United States envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell, is scheduled to meet with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem on Wednesday, and then with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, on Thursday in an effort to begin the talks, which stalled in March amid the settlement dispute. Dan Shapiro, one of Mr. Obama’s top Middle East experts at the National Security Council, headed to Tel Aviv on Tuesday to join the effort.