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News Analysis: American Jewish Groups Approach Middle East Changes Cautiously

When Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres secretly briefed Secretary of State Warren Christopher last month about the proposed accord with the Palestinians, Christopher wanted to know: Are the American Jews on board?

It is a question with profound implications for the peace process. American Jews have long provided a key channel for promoting Israeli policy in this country and tempering U.S. policy in the Middle East.

They are now faced with a sea-change in that policy. Whether and how they choose to support it will not only affect the outcome of the negotiations, but could dramatically change the nature of the organized community itself and its relationship with Israel.

At their meeting, Peres assured Christopher that he had already briefed the leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

It has been no secret that Christopher and other American policy-makers have been mindful of the American Jewish reaction to architects of every Middle East peace accord until now: From Henry Kissinger to Jimmy Carter to George Bush, the American Jewish response has been to “throw the bums out.”

This, despite the gratitude in Israel for the American role in bringing about the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the 1978 Camp David accord and earlier disengagement agreements.

The current American administration was so concerned over domestic fallout, in fact, that it refused a request from Israel and the Palestinians to play the part of heavy in the ongoing peace negotiations, according to a report in The New York Times.

Had the Americans been willing to appear as if they were imposing an accord on them, both sides would have found it easier to sell the pact to their constituents.

This reluctance on Christopher’s part is a reflection of the fact that in many instances, the organized American Jewish community seems more deeply conditioned against peace with the Arabs than does the leadership of Israel.

DEEP-SEATED ANTIPATHY TOWARD ARAFAT

Decades of being briefed on Israeli policy and then working tirelessly on its behalf have drilled into American Jewish leaders a deep-seated antipathy toward Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat and his allies.

And organizing support for peace defies the long-accepted wisdom that the only way to rally the troops and raise funds from a constituency with disparate views is through fear.

“For us, the Israelis, the state is an existential matter,” wrote columnist Nahum Barnea in Yediot Achronot last week.

“For them, (American Jews), it’s an emotional matter. For existence, we will go to war and make peace. For emotions, they have developed over the years a hatred for the PLO and its head,” Barnea wrote.

“It’s easy to hate, purely to hate, when your children aren’t paying the price.”

For all these reasons, even though American Jews by and large have always supported the Labor Party’s policy of territorial compromise, American Jewish organizational support for the Israeli-PLO breakthrough has been tempered by serious concern.

The proposed Israeli-Palestinian agreement, which was endorsed last week by Israel’s Cabinet, calls for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho as a first step toward extending Palestinian authority to the administered territories.

The suddenness of the secret accord, and its apparent fragility until it is publicly signed in Washington, has encouraged caution and hesitation from Jewish groups.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby, is gearing up to educate members of Congress and the Jewish community about the recent developments. It may be put in the rather unique position of lobbying on behalf of the Palestinians.

“We’re not at the stage yet” to discuss that notion publicly, said an AIPAC spokesperson.

The statements put out by the Conference of Presidents and other organizations which had not previously endorsed a policy of land for peace were supportive, but cautiously so.

ACCORD CONTRADICTS YEARS OF ISRAELI POLICY

A central factor in the lukewarm reaction is that the emerging Israeli-PLO entente flies in the face of what American Jews have been told for decades by Israeli governments, and have passed on in turn to the American public.

They were told that the PLO could not be a partner for peace, that the territories are vital for Israel’s security and that a Palestinian state is a grave threat to Israel’s security.

This view was so ingrained that when six months ago the Conference of Presidents was asked to accept as a member Americans for Peace Now, by only a narrow vote of 21-17 did it avoid deferring the membership of the only Jewish organization whose policies are those underlying the Oslo accord.

So rather than fully endorse the accord, it was much easier for most Jewish organizations to release a motherhood-and-apple-pie statement applauding Israel’s willingness to take bold steps for peace, warning of the risks involved and urging the Palestinians to fully change their ways.

Israel plans to continue and step up the efforts to explain, and sell, its policy to American Jews. Peres is scheduled to visit five cities in September; Rabin will address the Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly in November.

In effect, American Jewish organizations face a challenge of explaining how Israel will be helped by the policy, not simply the risks it is facing. They will be asked to place their trust in Israeli leaders and not in their past experience.

And they will be asked to work actively to make sure that the process goes as smoothly as possible. The position taken by the mainstream organizations of American Jewry could have serious repercussions for any peace proposal.

American taxpayers can expect to be asked to help underwrite the development projects seen as necessary for viable Palestinian self-rule.

“People used to believe it was pro-Israel to vote for aid for Israelis and against aid for Arabs. Those days are gone,” said Mark Rosenblum, policy director of Americans for Peace Now.

“Certainly it would help Israel do what it wants to do if the American Jewish community doesn’t stand in the way of a Jericho and Gaza aid package,” he said.

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