A day after the seven-hour meeting between Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York, one of the Obama administration’s top Middle East hands, Dan Shapiro, was sent to brief Jewish leaders on where things stand.
It was a classic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell conference call this morning. It was billed as an off-the-record Q-and-A for the 52 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (but the Forward got a detailed report from a participant just afterward).
Shapiro, in his 15-minute presentation, did not mention the conflict that erupted this week between the Obama administration and the Israeli government over building plans in East Jerusalem, and all but one of the Jewish leaders on the line chose not to ask.
Shapiro has a close relationship with the Jewish community. During the presidential campaign he was Obama’s liaison to the community and since joining the White House as director of Middle East affairs he’s kept his door open to Jewish activists seeking an address to express their thoughts, complaints and concerns about the administration’s policy toward Israel.
Shapiro also knows very well what his audience wants to hear.
In the briefing he mentioned time and again the need for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, an issue that has been at the center of Netanyahu’s approach to the peace process, and tried to avoid talk about the thorny issue of a settlement freeze.
Instead, he spoke at length about the work the Obama administration is doing to counter attempts to delegitimize Israel, an issue that has become a major theme in the world of Jewish activism.
When asked about the settlement freeze, Shapiro only said that the U.S. still hopes the moratorium on building in the settlements would be extended, but stressed that he could not predict how things will turn out.
The issue of the Jerusalem building contracts, which raised tensions this week and drew harsh responses from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, was only discussed following a question from Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now. Shapiro repeated the administration’s statement about this act being counterproductive and explained that the U.S. is looking for both sides to take steps that will help build trust.
But no one asked a follow-up question; none of the participants tried to quiz Shapiro on what went on in the lengthy discussion between Netanyahu and Clinton (which he attended), and no one pressed on where the relationship between the two countries stands after the falling-out over the Jerusalem building plans.
What was on the minds of the Jewish leaders?
A bevy of issues ranging from Iran sanctions, to delegitimization of Israel, to unilateral Palestinian steps (where Shapiro told Morton Klein of the ZOA that the administration opposes a move to ask the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state, although he did not explicitly say the U.S. would veto it).
Other issues included concerns over the administration’s silence over a letter of support sent by a Palestinian negotiator to the jailed convicted murderer of Israeli minister Rehavam Zeevi (Malcolm Hoenlein asked, and Shapiro said he did not know about the letter), and a question about why Obama did not ask the Muslim world in his speech in Jakarta this week to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (Shapiro: you know our policy of supporting Israel as a Jewish state is clear).
Alan Solow, chair of the Conference of Presidents, which hosted the conference call, ended by assuring Shapiro that everything said in the call would remain off the record. Well, that is one promise that is very hard to keep with a Jewish crowd, but Shapiro probably already knew that.