Scott Wilson explains that Obama wanted to restore America's reputation as a credible mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in doing so, the president believed he needed to regain Arab trust and talk tough to Israel.
It was their first meeting with the new president, and the dozen or so Jewish leaders picked to attend had made an agreement among themselves: No arguing — either with each other or their host.
The pledge would be hard to keep.
Five weeks earlier, President Obama had traveled to Cairo to ask for a "new beginning" between his government and an Islamic world angry about the United States' wars in two Muslim nations and its perceived favoritism toward Israel. Now, he was calling in these influential Jewish leaders to explain his thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As they gathered in the Roosevelt Room that afternoon, July 13, 2009, there was mounting concern about Obama.
In a very public way, the president had been asking Israel's government to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, hoping that political sacrifice by the Israeli leadership would bring the Palestinians to the peace table. In Cairo, he had even called Israel's continuing construction on land that Palestinians view as their future state "illegitimate."
According to three people who were at the meeting, and to notes recounted by one of them, Obama sought to reassure the skeptical attendees, telling them, "Don't think we don't understand the nuances of the current issues. We do."
But it was his response a few minutes later that came to define his administration's relationship with Israel — and the reason many in the room that day, and even more outside of it, believe that his attempts to bring the two sides together failed in his first term.