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News Analysis: Breakup of Israeli Government Poses Dilemma for American Jews

No matter what direction the political crisis in Israel now takes, some difficult times lie ahead for organized American Jewry.

Most American Jews, acting as individuals, would prefer to stay out of the political disputes between Labor and Likud over future relations with the Palestinians and the status of the administered territories.

But Jewish organizations, especially those that claim to speak for large segments of American Jewry, will find it increasingly difficult to sit quietly on the sidelines as the political cauldron boils over in Israel.

One set of problems could arise, for example, if Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir succeeds in setting up a narrow coalition to replace the broad-based unity government that fell Thursday. This narrow grouping would be composed of the Likud, the religious parties and several far-right political bodies.

A narrow, right-leaning government led by Likud most likely would be based on a resounding rejection of U.S. Secretary of State Baker’s proposal for preliminary talks in Cairo between Israel and a Palestinian delegation.

SUPPORT FOR SHAMIR MIGHT FALTER

Since the Bush administration already has demonstrated its impatience with Shamir’s lack of enthusiasm for the Baker plan, one could expect even greater administration hostility toward a an Israeli government united by its opposition to the proposed Cairo talks.

In such a scenario, the fragile consensus that has held for the past year among organized American Jewry would quickly break down.

Since last spring, when Shamir presented his plan for elections in the administered territories, the bodies that claim to speak for organized American Jewry have given Shamir the benefit of the doubt.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have all stressed that Shamir’s plan represents a sincere effort to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians and should be given American support.

The establishment of a narrow government led by Shamir would probably pull the rug out from under this consensus.

It would be very difficult for organized American Jewry to continue to argue with a united voice that Shamir is sincere in his desire for a settlement with the Palestinians.

Moreover, if the leaders of organized American Jewry sided openly with Shamir, they would quickly find themselves in a messy confrontation with the Bush administration.

‘WHO IS A JEW’ MAY RESURFACE

Some major American Jewish groups have been skeptical of Shamir’s sincerity from the outset, but have suppressed open expression of their doubts in order to maintain a united front.

These groups — the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, and the Reform and Conservative movements — might well be moved to make their reservations public if Shamir were to emerge at the head of a narrow coalition that would be blamed for stonewalling on the peace process.

Another possible scenario would be for Labor Party leader Shimon Peres to form a narrow coalition government based on Labor, the religious parties and several small left-wing parties.

Such a government, which would no doubt accept the Baker plan, would gain the immediate support of the Bush administration.

On the surface, then, it appears that a left-leaning narrow government would be easier for most American Jewish leaders to support. Doing so would enable them to avoid a confrontation with the administration.

It also would be consonant with their political leanings, if a recent survey conducted by sociologist Steven Cohen is accurate in its conclusion that most American Jewish leaders hold “dovish” views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Yet the price that Peres would have to pay the religious parties for their participation in his coalition might raise serious misgivings among many American Jews.

In addition to their usual demands for key Cabinet posts and for increased funding of Orthodox institutions, the religious parties are expected to raise the “Who Is a Jew” issue in one form or another.

ASSURANCES FROM LIKUD AND LABOR

This issue, which inflamed Israel-Diaspora relations in late 1988, refers to the status of converts to Judaism who make aliyah to Israel.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have sought to change the Law of Return, so that only those immigrants converted by Orthodox rabbis would be recognized as Jews in Israel.

That is offensive to most American Jews, the vast majority of whom identify with one of the non-Orthodox movements.

American Jewish leaders would face a harsh dilemma: They would be asked to support a narrow coalition sincerely committed to the peace process, but which is prepared to make a major concession to the ultra-Orthodox on “Who Is a Jew.”

Of course, demands from the religious parties on “Who is a Jew” would not be aimed only at Peres. Shamir also would find himself under intense pressure to yield to the religious parties on this issue, in order to muster a parliamentary majority for his narrow coalition.

If Shamir were to give in on “Who Is a Jew,” this would create a worst-case scenario for American Jewry.

A Shamir-led narrow coalition, which would in any case be difficult to support on political grounds, would further alienate American Jews by caving in on “Who Is a Jew.”

In New York, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, said Thursday that he had “received assurances” from leaders in both the Likud and Labor parties that “the ‘Who Is a Jew’ issue is not on the agenda.”

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said that he, too, had received assurances earlier this year from Shamir and Peres that they would not “submit to demands by the Orthodox for a change in the Law of Return.”

“We will hold the leaders of both major parties to their word,” he said.

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