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Awaiting Netanyahu, U.S. Jews Weigh Obama's Efforts

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Awaiting Netanyahu, U.S. Jews Weigh Obama's Efforts

Politics

Awaiting Netanyahu, U.S. Jews Weigh Obama's Efforts

Awaiting Netanyahu, U.S. Jews Weigh Obama's Efforts

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128316997/128328892" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Presidential candidate Barack Obama met with Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in July 2008. Dan Balilty/AP hide caption

toggle caption Dan Balilty/AP

Presidential candidate Barack Obama met with Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in July 2008.

Dan Balilty/AP

On Tuesday, President Obama will welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the White House.

It's a sensitive moment for the Obama administration and its handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu's last scheduled visit was canceled when Israeli commandos killed nine people aboard a ship headed for Gaza.

But when one asks how the American Jewish community views the Obama administration's handling of Israel, Jeremy Ben-Ami of the group J Street says, one needs perspective.

"American Jews care about the economy," Ben-Ami says. "They care about health care. They care about banking regulation, the oil spill. Those are the things, just like all Americans of other faiths and backgrounds — that's the basis on which they form a view of a president and an elected official."

There is a vocal minority of Jews for whom Israel is the most important issue. These people tend to be more religious, more politically conservative and more troubled by the way things have gone under the Obama administration.

One snapshot involves the lack of a snapshot.

Obama last hosted Netanyahu at the White House in March. It was shortly after Vice President Biden returned from a disastrous visit to Israel during which the Israelis announced a major new housing project in East Jerusalem.

A photograph of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting was not released, and some American Jews who support the Netanyahu government viewed that as a snub.

"There were real incidents, and there were real disagreements, but things got plugged into a narrative, so even things that were not intentionally meant to slight one or the other were read in the most negative light, because there was sort of a downward spiral," says Nathan Diament, of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The Obama administration has been trying to pull up. On Friday, White House officials had a conference call with reporters to preview Netanyahu's visit. An Israeli journalist asked whether his country's perception of a rift between Israel and the U.S. is accurate.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said absolutely not.

"I think that our administration, in partnership with the Israeli government, has taken a number of steps to strengthen and deepen our cooperation," Rhodes said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, thinks the new approach is working.

"Some of the harsh language or things that were witnessed in the first year have of late been dealt with in a much more sensitive and positive way," he says.

The White House hosted an event for Jewish heritage month, and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has met with rabbis.

Several Jewish groups have had foreign policy meetings with top National Security Council officials.

Some of those events are due to the work of Robert Wexler, a former congressman who recently left office to run the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

"The degree of light between the Obama administration and the Israeli government has been nonexistent," Wexler says. "I think there is a narrative that has been portrayed, that is different than the one that I have portrayed, yes, but the facts speak for themselves. So to the degree that people have concern, please, I would respectfully suggest, review the facts."

For Ben-Ami of the liberal group J Street, the tone from the White House is right, but the action is not there yet.

"We give the president really high marks on vision, on rhetoric and on intention," he says. "We give him an incomplete on results. We're 18 months into the presidency; it is time for the president to put his foot on the accelerator. If there's going to be a resolution to this conflict by the end of this first term, there has to be progress in the next six to nine months."

On Tuesday, Obama will meet with Netanyahu one-on-one in the Oval Office, followed by a working lunch with staff. And this time, the White House says, there will be photographs.

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