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Over 250 Rabbis Sign a Letter Opposing Growth of Settlements

More than 250 Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis have signed a letter urging Democratic presidential contenders, if elected, to oppose the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “no less vigorously than the Bush administration.”

The letter, circulated by the Jewish Peace Lobby, is believed to be only the second public statement by a Jewish group supporting the administration’s policy of linking loan guarantees for immigrant absorption in Israel with a halt to settlement activity in the territories.

This remains a minority view in the Jewish community, as 90 percent of the 3,000 rabbis to whom the letter was circulated refused to sign on.

Jerome Segal, president of the lobby, said the number of signatures did not fully reflect American Jewish opposition to Israeli settlement policy or support for linking loan guarantees to that policy.

“There are a lot of people out there who are quite sour on the Bush administration” but agree with its stance on the issue of settlements, he claimed.

He said many American Jews are still upset by the president’s Sept. 12 description of himself as “one lonely guy” up against some “powerful political forces” on Capitol Hill.

Those remarks, which were widely perceived as challenging the Jewish community’s right to lobby for Israel and the loan guarantees, made it difficult for Jews to sign a letter that takes the Bush administration’s policies as a benchmark, Segal said.

The letter looks ahead to the possibility that the Bush administration will be replaced by one of the Democratic presidential candidates and expresses concern over the consequences if the present focus on promoting the peace process and halting the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is not continued.

The result would be that “the Likud government will succeed in placing so many settlers in the West Bank that the ‘land for peace’ option will be closed forever,” the letter says.

DEMOCRATS CRITICAL OF ADMINISTRATION

The Jewish Peace Lobby was formed more than two years ago to lobby in Washington on behalf of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, meaning the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Israeli government has justified its settlement policy as necessary to prevent the establishment of such a state, which the U.S. government officially opposes as well.

Segal said most of 2,500 members of the Jewish Peace Lobby and the rabbis who signed its letter would likely vote for a Democrat in November, since as individuals they disagree with Bush on most issues other than the peace process.

But he said it is important for Democrats to endorse the Bush approach to ensure that the peace talks are not stalled by Israel in anticipation that American attitudes will soften in November.

Among the signatories are three past presidents of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical organization: Rabbis Arthur Lelyveld, Jerome Malino and Eugene Lipman; Rabbi Gordon Tucker, dean of the rabbinical school of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot; and Rabbi Michael Weinberg, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

The letter has not yet been sent to the Democratic candidates.

Some sense of their likely replies, however, can be gauged from the March 2 issue of Near East Report, which summarizes the positions on Israel held by four of the candidates.

Responding to questionnaires, the candidates took positions much closer to those of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstream pro-Israel lobby and publisher of Near East Report, than to those of the Jewish Peace Lobby.

According to the weekly newsletter, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas “blasted the White House for injecting the loan guarantee issue into the Middle East peace talks,” and made clear his support for the loans, which would enable Israel to borrow money from commercial banks at favorable interest rates.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said that “Soviet Jews are not bargaining chips,” and is a cosponsor of a bill that would provide the loan guarantees to Israel without conditions.

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska has not cosponsored that bill, according to Near East Report, but has expressed his support for loan guarantees. He has attacked the administration for being “neither honest nor a broker” in some of its recent dealings with Israel.

And former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts told the newsletter that “loan guarantees are a humanitarian issue, not a political issue.” He has accused President Bush of “Willie Hortonizing” the issue with his September remarks.

Former California Gov. Edmund (Jerry) Brown did not return the questionnaire.

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