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Jewish Groups Greet Syrian Letter with Mixtur of Hope and Skepticism

American Jewish organizations have reacted with a mixture of hope and skepticism to Syria’s seemingly positive response to President Bush’s Middle East peace proposals.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, summed up the feelings of many organizational leaders.

If Syrian President Hafez Assad’s response is “as positive as the president said it is,” the Reform leader remarked, it “represent a potential breakthrough, the harbinger of an era of peace for Arabs, Jews and all mankind.”

“But if Assad’s response is couched in ambiguities and larded with conditions,” he said, “we are witnessing another act of duplicity, calculated to place the onus of responsibility on Israel.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voiced “cautious optimism” about Assad’s letter to Bush, but said there is “ample reason for skepticism.”

Shoshana Cardin, the conference chairman, said Syria’s continuing purchase of sophisticated weapons and its denial of human rights to Syrian Jews, among other things, “are hardly the acts of a nation purporting to seek peace.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, noted that Syria “continues to support, harbor and grant safe haven to some of the world’s most wanted terrorists.”

Likewise, Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress, said Syria’s “history of unremitting hostility to Israel fully justifies Israel’s skepticism over the Syrian response.”

But he said that if the Assad letter is indeed “as positive as we hope it is,” then “we trust Prime Minister (Yitzhak) Shamir and his government will proceed vigorously in taking full advantage of the new opportunity.”

WIESENTHAL CENTER URGES U.N. DEAL

And Henry Siegman, the group’s executive director, said that if Syria has agreed to direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel, Jerusalem will “have to put forward some pretty damn good reasons” why it cannot participate.

Israel has two principal objections to the U.S. scenario at this point: It opposes the participation of even a silent United Nations observer at the peace conference that would serve as an opening to direct negotiations, and it does not want to see such a conference reconvene periodically to check the progress of the direct talks.

American Jewish groups, which tend to share Israel’s deep suspicion of the United Nations, have until now not differed publicly with Israel on these points.

But on Tuesday, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center called on Israel to accept a passive U.N. role if movement is made to repeal the 1975 U.N. General Assembly resolution denigrating Zionism as a form of racism.

“The starting point should be getting the five permanent members of the Security Council to issue” a declaration “affirming Zionism as the legitimate liberation movement of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s dean.

“Once they did that, that could jump-start the talks, with an understanding that at a later date the U.N. General Assembly would repeal the resolution,” he said.

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