WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Monday met Arab American leaders who urged him to deliver a message of hope to the Palestinian people on his Middle East trip this month, even though he has made clear he will not use the visit to launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
Obama hosted about 10 leaders at the White House just four days after holding talks with representatives of major Jewish organizations in preparation for his travels to Israel, the West Bank and neighboring Jordan.
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Obama met the group on Monday to seek input for his meetings in the region. He is expected to hold separate talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.
"He underscored that the trip is an opportunity for him to demonstrate the United States' commitment to the Palestinian people - in the West Bank and Gaza - and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority as it continues building institutions that will be necessary to bring about a truly independent Palestinian state," a White House official said.
Obama also told them he would "reiterate America's commitment to Israel's security," the official said.
Many Palestinians have been disappointed by Obama's failure to do more to advance a peace deal, despite having declared Middle East diplomacy a high priority when he took office.
The Obama administration has opposed recent Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations while at the same criticizing Israeli settlement expansion.
Preparations for visit underway in Israel (Photo: AFP)
Obama told Jewish leaders on Thursday he would not be carrying a new peace plan when he arrives in the region, though he did not rule out a diplomatic push at a later date. The West's nuclear standoff with Iran and the civil war in Syria are expected to top his agenda.
"We are pleased to have shared with President Obama our recommendations and vital messages that he should convey to the Palestinian people," Arab American groups said in a joint statement.
"The United States, through sustained, balanced, constructive engagement, can facilitate a peaceful, lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a resolution that is essential to long-term security in the Middle East."
The statement was from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, American Task Force for Palestine, American Federation of Ramallah Palestine and Arab American Institute.
The White House did not issue a statement at the end of the meeting. Nevertheless, several Arab American leaders who attended the meeting issued a statement thanking the president for seeing them.
James Zogby, the Arab American Institute president, noted that Obama would not have the opportunity to address Palestinians, but counseled means of sending a direct message to the Palestinians.
“There are ways to speak to the people directly,” Zogby said. “There are opportunities for him to say things that get into the public discourse about America’s commitment to them, about America’s understanding of their situation,” he said.
Zogby further added: “I personally don’t expect that he’s going to come back with a formula to make everything go away, but the conversation begins and we want to be part of that conversation. Bringing us in was an important start.”
Warren David, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he left with a “bittersweet feeling.”
“But more sweet than bitter, more optimism,” David said. “Many, many Arab-Americans are disappointed. Many voted for the president — more than ever before — because they felt this president would move the peace process forward.”
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