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News Analysis: Shamir Inspiring New Optimism Among American Jewish Leaders

Compared to a rabble-rousing speech to New York Jewish leaders last week, Yitzhak Shamir’s talk Tuesday afternoon to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was positively mellow.

The change in tone, said Jewish leaders who attended both meetings, is the result of Shamir’s success in Washington last week in regaining Israeli momentum in the peace process.

Shamir did speak Tuesday of a “determined threat to push Israel back to the 1967 lines” and his government’s opposition to both the creation of a Palestinian state and negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But instead of decrying Arab terrorism at length, Shamir urged Palestinian “neighbors” not to reject his recent offers for “maximum self-rule” and to “turn over a new leaf toward a better future for us and for them.”

Gone were ringing statements that rejected trading any more land for peace, replaced with hints of resurrecting the compromises contained in U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

And if Shamir was uncertain last week about the American position, on Tuesday he acknowledged that “we now understand each other considerably better, and there is appreciation of our views on the situation and on what needs to be done.”

“I thought he was excellent in terms of projecting his willingness to discuss peace,” said Milton Shapiro, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

‘MORE FLEXIBILITY’ THAN EVER

“He showed more flexibility than at any time previously. The new concept of elections, while not totally new, showed a flexibility and an understanding that can bring about negotiations,” he said.

In his address, Shamir outlined his plan for Palestinian elections and for talks with elected Palestinian representatives about an “interim stage” of Palestinian self-rule.

After a testing period, he explained, “negotiations will be held between Israel and the Palestinian representatives — together with Jordan and Egypt — to decide on the permanent status of the areas in question.”

This plan has gained the clear support of the U.S. government, observed Ira Silverman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“I was fearful, given the advance press skepticism and virtually simultaneous visit of (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak, that the Israeli position would be undermined,” he said.

But now, Silverman said, he is relieved that the elections proposals were so well accepted.

“Whether that’s good enough to break the logjam in the peace process, I couldn’t begin to speculate,” he added. “Not to take the pressure off the Palestinians, but the Israeli government has to move and continue to come up with creative ideas.”

Even a dependable critic of Shamir’s policies emerged with a sense of optimism after Tuesday’s meeting.

“It is absolutely a different tone, a different approach from his speeches and his attitude during his previous visit last year,” said Menachem Rosensaft, president of the Labor Zionist Alliance. “He sounded much more moderate and held open the possibility of an eventual compromise.”

OPEN TO TERRITORIAL COMPROMISE

Rosensaft pointed to Shamir’s favorable mention of discussing Resolutions 242 and 338 during the “second phase” of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The resolutions call for the return of Arab land in exchange for recognition of Israel.

“That is different from saying Israeli performance under 242 was fulfilled upon the withdrawal from Sinai,” said Rosensaft, referring to Shamir’s past statements opposing returning portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“He left open the possibility of territorial compromise without in any way giving up his position, which is opposition to territorial compromise. But he left it open, and it’s now up to the Palestinians and the PLO to take the next step,” said Rosensaft.

Goldie Kweller, president of Mercaz, Conser vative Judaism’s Zionist movement, was heartened by Shamir’s proposal for an international conference to solve the Palestinian refugee problem.

Shamir clarified his proposal with a joke that a refugee conference would be different from “this conference that I don’t like.”

He believes an overall international peace conference would be coercive. Instead, he favors direct bilateral talks.

“I don’t believe that an international peace conference at this time will do more than muddy the waters,” agreed Kweller.

“But if they sit down over one of the problems, like the refugees, then there is the opportunity to open other doors. If people speak to each other, there is the chance of coming together.”

Most of all, there was praise for Shamir’s new willingness to hear other opinions from across the spectrum of American Jewish leadership: Silverman called Shamir “excruciatingly patient” in listening to advice.

Leaders acknowledge that it is more important how Shamir’s proposals play in Nablus than in New York. But they say that his visit to the United States has made credible his claims of having achieved American Jewish unity with Israel.

“If Shamir has engaged in a process that is positive and that holds out some hope, everyone who supports Israel should give him their full support,” said Rosensaft.

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