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Jewish Leaders Deny ‘crisis’ in U.S. Relations with Israel

The leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are trying to reassure the Jewish community that there is “no crisis” in U.S.-Israeli relations and that Israel’s peace initiative is not in danger of falling apart.

This was the essence of the report made Monday to a closed-door consultation of the Conference of Presidents by Seymour Reich, its chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive director, on a meeting they held with Secretary of State James Baker last week.

At the same time, there is speculation that unless Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Bush administration can resolve differences over Baker’s proposals for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Shamir may not come to Washington as expected next month.

The Israeli prime minister would not want to engage in a face-to-face clash with either President Bush or American Jewish leaders, some of whom are known to be critical of the tough position he has adopted in recent weeks.

Reich and Hoenlein met with Baker at the State Department on Oct. 18, in the midst of a public dispute between Shamir and Baker. The State Department had criticized as “unhelpful” Shamir’s statements the day before that the United States was trying to force Israel to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In a telephone interview, Hoenlein denied that the Conference of Presidents had sought to meet with Baker in a crisis atmosphere. He said the session was part of the regular consultations held with Baker.

“We are concerned, of course,” said Hoenlein. “But everybody understands the complexity of the issues.”

DIFFERENCES WITHIN JEWISH COMMUNITY

Hoenlein said there is a “lot of distortion” of the positions on both sides. He rejected reports that Baker had threatened to wash his hands of Shamir’s election proposal, claiming that there is no lessening of the U.S. commitment to the peace process.

Baker told the Jewish leaders that there is no stalemate, that there are opportunities for real progress, but that patience is required, Hoenlein reported.

The Jewish official conceded that there are serious differences between the Bush administration and Israel. But Israel’s objections are not “frivolous” since they are “life and death issues,” Hoenlein said.

He said Israel and the United States continue to be in close contact. He pointed out that after the exchange of sharp public statements last week, Shamir spoke by telephone to both Bush and Baker, and Baker has talked with Arens several times since then.

Meanwhile, serious differences over the peace process are emerging in the American Jewish community, although most groups do not appear ready to go public yet, especially at a time when Israel’s Labor Party appears to be muting its criticism of Shamir.

But Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, issued a statement last week accusing both Israel and the Palestinians of negativism.

“If the chance for peace that now exists is allowed to pass, if the transient, evanescent possibility of dialogue is not seized now, the result is likely to be far more terrible than the intifada,” the Reform leader said.

Schindler urged Baker to continue his effort at “bridge-building,” since “there never has been an Arab-Israel settlement without the active participation of the United States.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Milton Shapiro, president of the Zionist Organization of America, wrote a letter to Baker, expressing support of Israeli opposition to direct or indirect recognition of the PLO.

Shapiro urged the Bush administration to “refrain from suggesting or implying that Israel should take steps which, directly or indirectly, compromise what it considers to in its vital self-interests.”

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