In a Tuesday meeting at the White House, US President Barack Obama told a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders that Israel’s security needs are more important than maintaining an evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a participant who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

The source said the president stressed that his administration has pressed the Palestinian leadership – not just Israel – to make necessary concessions for a peace deal. The source added that Obama makes no apologies for pursuing peace and believes it is in Israel’s interests to do so as well.

One source reported that Obama said his calls to freeze settlement expansion reflected the same positions of his four  predecessors, and blamed differences with Israel in part on the quirk of history of a centrist US government and a right-wing Israeli government coexisting.

Obama said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to act without restraints, but that he understood him — most leaders want to act without restraints.

He said peace was critical as the Arab democracy movement swept the region, but worried that the Palestinian leadership was no longer as interested in advancing toward peace.

The conversation was ‘serious, straightforward, and civil, punctuated by a few lighthearted, warm moments’

Anyone expecting a less convivial meeting than the president’s discussions with Conservative rabbis and leaders last week would have been disappointed. According to Orthodox Union (OU) Public Policy Director Nathan Diament – who was a driving force in making the meeting happen – the conversation was “serious, straightforward, and civil, punctuated by a few lighthearted, warm moments.”

Diament said the group of about a dozen rabbis and lay leaders met with Obama for 45 minutes in the Roosevelt Room following a half hour meeting with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Afterwards, Obama invited the delegation to the Oval Office, where the Orthodox leaders presented him with a framed reproduction of President George Washington’s letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island — the first occasion upon which Jewish leaders and an American president exchanged their views.

President Obama, shown speaking at a White House reception honoring Jewish American Heritage Month on May 31, 2012, told Conservative Jewish leaders the previous day that he probably knew more about Judaism than any other president. (photo credit: The White House/JTA)

President Obama, shown speaking at a White House reception honoring Jewish American Heritage Month on May 31, 2012, told Conservative Jewish leaders the previous day that he probably knew more about Judaism than any other president. (photo credit: The White House/JTA)

In a meeting with Conservative Jewish leaders last week, Obama lamented the “unfounded” depiction of his administration as hostile to Israel by some quarters of the Jewish community.

Many of the president’s critics within the Jewish community are Orthodox; they disagree with him on issues such as federal funding for religious day schools, gay rights, and parts of Obama’s healthcare law that they claim infringe on the rights of faith institutions.

Those issues all came up and, according to a source, the president was particularly understanding on the subject of the high cost of Jewish day school tuition. The source said Obama expressed his willingness to find ways of working together to tackle the problem.

“We are deeply appreciative to President Obama and Chief of Staff Lew for meeting with us to discuss the President’s priorities and the Orthodox Jewish community’s values and interests,” said OU President Dr. Simcha Katz.

OU Policy Director Nathan Diament attended Harvard Law School at the same time as President Obama (photo credit: Courtesy Nathan Diament)

In addition to Katz, Diament, and OU Managing Director Rabbi Steve Burg, participants included rabbis and lay leaders from several OU-affiliated synagogues — Rabbi Haskel Lookstein from New York City, Shira Yoshor from Houston, Rabbi Binny Blau from Cleveland, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg from Boca Raton, and Ellen Lightman from Baltimore. Other influential Orthodox Jewish leaders at the meeting included Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, Chabad’s Washington, DC emissary, Levi Shemtov, and Lakewood Yeshiva head Aaron Kotler.

Although the Orthodox Jewish community is far smaller and more politically conservative than its liberal counterparts, its members still have an open line of communication with the White House, thanks in no small part to Diament, who attended Harvard Law School with Obama.

Diament was one year behind the president at Harvard, but the two were friendly and spent a good deal of time together on the basketball court in the law school gym. When Obama took office, he named Diament to his Faith Advisory Council and consults with his former classmate on issues that matter to the Orthodox community.