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Obama to Address Jewish Group on Israel, Mideast Peace

President Barack Obama on Friday delivers an address to an American Jewish group in Washington likely to focus on the U.S. relationship with Israel and his administration's efforts to move the Israel-Palestinian peace process forward.  He is expected to reaffirm strong support for Israel, which Republican presidential candidates have questioned in recent weeks.

Mr. Obama's speech to the Union of Reform Judaism comes at a delicate time for Mideast diplomacy, and as he tries to solidify support among American Jewish voters for his re-election in 2012.

Efforts with international partners to get Israel and Palestinians back to direct negotiations are apparently making little progress.  Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, have escalated their attacks on the president's Mideast policies.

Last week, Republican hopefuls used appearances before a conservative Republican Jewish organization to accuse Mr. Obama of mis-treating Israel, and mis-handling strategy on Iran's nuclear program.  

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, the current Republican front-runner, said "This one-sided continuing pressure that says it is always Israel's fault, no matter how bad the other side is, has to stop."

That is not, in fact, how the administration has pursued efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to direct talks, but such remarks can gain significant political traction, especially in an election year.

Friday's speech will be another opportunity for Mr. Obama to talk about what he has frequently described as "unshakeable" support for Israel, as he did at a recent White House reception for Jewish community leaders marking the Jewish Chanukah observance. "This is also a time to be grateful for our friendships, both with each other and between our nations, and that includes of course our unshakeable support and commitment to the security of the nation of Israel," he said.

While he and administration officials never fail to emphasize this commitment, critics have seized on various statements to back up their assertion that Mr. Obama is unnecessarily tough on Israel.

On Thursday, a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel, backed by leading conservative critics of Mr. Obama, published an ad in The New York Times and other major newspapers accusing him of using Israel as a "punching bag."

It listed such things as the recent remark by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who responded this way during a discussion in Washington when asked what Israel should do to move peace efforts with Palestinians forward. "Just get to the damned table.  Just get to the table," he said.

Though Panetta appeared to aim his response at both Israel and the Palestinians, critics said the remark reflected an overall tough approach Mr. Obama has applied to Israel.

Also on critic's list was the off-microphone exchange during the G-20 summit in France in which Mr. Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy aimed personal barbs at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Republican presidential candidates and many Jewish groups also criticized the U.S. ambassador to Belgium after remarks the diplomat, who is Jewish, made on the subject of anti-semitism.

Mr. Obama has returned fire, responding directly and bluntly to a charge by Republican candidate Mitt Romney that he has pursued an "appeasement" policy abroad.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Newt Gringrich's remark that the Palestinians were an "invented people."

The administration, meanwhile, continues to press both sides to get back to the negotiating table, most recently in talks in New York of the Quartet group including the U.S.,  United Nations, Russia, and European Union.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said,  "We support steps taken by both sides that make that more likely, and we oppose steps taken by either side that make it less likely, that make it harder to accomplish."

President Obama's former Mideast peace negotiator Dennis Ross, spoke recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy."These are two peoples, they are not going to go away, they have to co-exist.  The only way they co-exist is in two states.  So, we still have to try to find a way to get there, you still have to try to find a way to get to negotiations, because you are not going to achieve an outcome without negotiations," he said.

With his address on Friday, Mr. Obama will be trying to bolster his job approval rating among American Jews, which according to Gallup stood at 54 percent three months ago.   The president won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential election.

However, other statistics apply when it comes to his handling of U.S. - Israel relations.  A poll by the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy organization, found 53 percent of those surveyed disapproving of his performance.

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