WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama made an impassioned appeal to American Jews yesterday, arguing that his approach to Middle East problems flows from an interpretation of Jewish values that he adopted as guiding principles in his own life.

The speech at Adas Israel Congregation underscored the personal stake Obama has in strengthening his relationship with some segments of the country's Jewish community.

The president addressed a range of policy issues -- including the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At its core, the speech was a plea for understanding that his criticisms of Israel's government stem from a belief that the country must live up to "the type of nation that it was intended to be in its earliest founding."

"It's precisely because, yes, I have high expectations for Israel -- the same way I have high expectations for the United States of America -- that I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland," he said.

Several of the president's allies have urged him to forge a more emotional connection with Jewish advocates who are uneasy about his overtures to Iran and his criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Sporting a yarmulke, the president spoke seriously about the influence Judaism had on him as a young man focused on social justice.

He said he looked upon past Israeli leaders Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir with admiration: "The notion of pioneers who set out not only to safeguard a nation, but to remake the world . . . and those values, in many ways, came to be my own values," he said.

Obama defended his push for a two-state solution as a way of honoring that legacy, even as he acknowledged that "the Palestinians are not the easiest of partners" in the peace process, prompting laughter from the audience.

"The rights of the Jewish people then compel me to think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity," Obama said. "That's what Jewish values teach me."