WASHINGTON — Just days ahead of his Mideast trip, President Barack Obama on Monday met with about 10 leaders of Arab American groups who encouraged him to deliver a message of hope to the Palestinian people even if he is unable to immediately deliver a peace plan with Israel.
Obama met with the officials Monday, four days after meeting with Jewish leaders as part of his preparation for the visit.
The White House has not publicly announced the dates for the trip. Israeli news media have reported Obama will arrive on March 20. Obama will also make stops in Ramallah and Jordan.
In a statement, participants said they offered Obama "recommendations for the vital message that he should convey to the Palestinian people."
Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and one of the participants, said Obama would not have the opportunity to make a speech to the Palestinian people.
"But 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.
Following the meeting, the White House said Obama told the group that his trip was not meant to resolve a specific policy issue, but that it was an opportunity for Obama to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the Palestinian people.
Obama told them he intends to reiterate the U.S. commitment to Israel's security and to discuss regional concerns – including Syria – with Jordan's leadership, the White House said.
The meeting took place in the West Wing's Roosevelt Room, just steps away from the Oval Office. Participants said that in addition to Obama, members of his national security team and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett also participated.
One participant in the meeting, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said he got the impression that Obama was treating his Mideast visit as an "exploratory trip." He said both sides emphasized the need for follow-up after the trip to ensure momentum doesn't fade away.
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."
Zogby 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."
In his meeting last week with Jewish leaders, Obama downplayed expectations for the trip, saying he did not intend to deliver "grand peace plan." But according to one participant in that session, Obama said he could still initiate such an effort in coming months.
In their joint statement Monday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Federation of Ramallah Palestine, the American Task Force for Palestine and the Arab American Institute said, "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."
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.
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