President Barack Obama held his first meeting with leaders of the Arab-American community on Monday to get feedback and ask questions one week before departing on a tour of the Middle East.
Several participants characterized the off-the-record meeting as a complement to a similar one held with Jewish-American leaders last week, saying it was a chance for the president to talk with individuals deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and seek input on his first trip to the region as president.
Jewish-American leaders who met with the president last week said he has no plans to roll out a new peace proposal while abroad, and Arab-American leaders present at Monday's meeting agreed with that assessment.
"This is more about resetting relationships with the Israeli people," one participant said. "Israelis don't seem to have the same feelings for this president - in fact they don't - as they did for Clinton."
"This visit is a chance to reintroduce himself," the participant added.
Warren David of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said he expressed to the president his community's frustration with the lack of movement toward peace over his first four years in office.
"I said, 'I'm very disappointed that nothing has happened. You have not moved forward to provoke any peace between Palestine and Israel. Many of our members are disappointed and depressed,' I told him. 'And many of them voted for you,'" David said. "Arab-Americans are really fed up and frustrated. We feel like we've been really screwed and tattooed."
But after spending the afternoon at the White House meeting with the president and members of his National Security Staff, David said he left feeling optimistic.
"I went into the meeting very pessimistic, and I came out with a sense of optimism, from what I heard, that he truly is going to try to move forward," David said.
Participants in the meeting were instructed not to characterize what the president or members of his administration said, but a White House official said after the meeting that the president "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."
"He indicated that he is traveling to Jordan to highlight the United States' commitment to Jordan's security and demonstrate support for its political reforms, and to discuss issues of regional concern, including Syria," the official said.
Several participants described the meeting as positive and one long-time observer of the Middle East peace process in attendance said he was impressed with the president's grasp on the issues.
"Whatever (the president is) able to do on the issues or the region, it's not for a lack of understanding," this participant said. "As I look at the sum of what he said, this is a guy who knows the issues, knows them as well as anyone in the room and understands the enormity of trying to bring peace to the region."
Many in the room advised the president to talk directly to the people of the Middle East, rather than just to their politicians. A White House official confirmed that the president intends to "speak directly to the Israeli people," and James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, said he hopes the president will take the same approach with Palestinians.
"Meeting with the leadership is great. You have to do it, but that by itself will not give Palestinians" a sense of hope or optimism, Zogby said. "That's what we're hoping they'll do, talk to people in general, to the constituency that's given up hope."
Zogby said that this message was well-received, and he left the White House feeling optimistic the president and his staff will try to find opportunities during the trip to interact directly with Palestinians.
"I think they're going to do more than meet with the president and meet with the prime minister," Zogby said.
George Salem, Washington representative of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, said the groups who met with the president in the Roosevelt Room on Monday are trying to "create an atmosphere of hope," an atmosphere where the people of the Middle East are supportive of their leaders negotiating a peace agreement. Salem suggested that one way to do this is through encouraging entrepreneurship.
"At the end of the meeting (the president) went back to a few of us and mentioned our comments, and he said 'George, we will try to engage in the economic developments that are occurring,' " Salem said.
However, any optimism expressed by those present at the meeting was couched in an acknowledgement of the enormity of the problem.
"I took the first Arab-American delegation to meet with President Reagan, and I've met with every president since on this issue. So my optimism is tempered by experience," Salem said. He then added that in his estimation "this president is one of the most personally committed we've seen to finding peace."
David said he told the president he hopes "this will be a legacy" for Obama's second term in office.
"I felt a buzz of sorts, that this could be real. It could happen," David said. "That was my feeling."
While many of the groups represented had submitted documents in recent weeks with advice for the upcoming trip, the meeting at the White House was largely planned over the weekend. Some participants received an invitation just Sunday and were unaware until late Monday morning that the president would be in attendance.