Obama meets with Arab-American leaders ahead of Middle East trip

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama met with Arab-American leaders ahead of his trip to Israel and the Palestinian areas.

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Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force for Palestine, told JTA that the White House meeting lasted about an hour, and that much of it was in the form of questions and answers. He said there were about a dozen participants.

Obama’s remarks were off the record, but participants could describe their own comments.

“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,” said a joint statement from the American Task Force for Palestine, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute and the American Federation of Ramallah Palestine released after Monday’s meeting.

The statement added that the groups “look forward to using this meeting as a springboard for robust ongoing conversations on U.S. policy in the Middle East.”

Asali said he stressed in the meeting the importance of renewing Israeli-Palestinian talks.

“Over the last period there has been a lot of deterioration, and the tide has to be stemmed,” Asali said.

In a similar meeting last week with Jewish groups, Obama said the prospects for renewing such talks were not good right now, but did not count out returning to the process within a year.

James Zogby, the Arab American Institute president, said he noted that Obama would address Israelis and would not have the opportunity to deliver a similar speech to Palestinians, but counseled means of sending a direct message to the Palestinians.

“There are ways to speak to the people directly,” Zogby told JTA. “There are  things to say to the people to help restore the sense of confidence they have in the future.”

Zogby said he advised a trip to a church or a Palestinian economic venture.

Obama reportedly is considering visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

“If they go to the Church of the Nativity,” Zogby said, “there’s a whole lot they’ll be able to see on the way there.”

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