Meeting with Orthodox Rabbis Marks Rabin’s Return to the U.S.

A meeting with a group of Orthodox rabbis was one of the first items on the itinerary when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin arrived here for his first visit to the United States since signing the declaration of principles with Yasser Arafat two months ago.

It was a move to shore up support from the segment of the Jewish community that has least embraced the Rabin government.

The cool relations began with the appointment of fervent secularist Shulamit Aloni as education minister, and have continued through the dramatic policy shifts inherent in the peace process.

While the group of Orthodox leaders invited to the meetings Thursday are mostly supportive of the peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians, that support is hesitant at best.

Even those who are not convinced Jewish law prohibits surrendering territory have grave concerns about the accord in general and the impact it will have on the settlers in the territories in particular.

For several of the participants in the meeting, like many in the Orthodox community, those settlers include their children and grandchildren.

At the meeting, which included the leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Yeshiva University, Rabin laid out his policies and the basis for them.

“At the same time, he really didn’t answer our questions,” said Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of the RCA.

He and others expressed their concerns for the deteriorating security situation faced by the settlers, and for the perceived failure of the Palestinians to abide by their side of the peace agreement.

Not least among their complaints were the repeated statements by Rabin that have been interpreted by some as the beginning of a deliberate effort to delegitimize the settlers in the eyes of Israeli public opinion.

PERCEPTION THAT GOVERNMENT DOESN’T CARE

“Our major concern is that he has to change the perception that the government simply doesn’t care about what’s happening in the territories,” said Walfish.

The prime minister tried to put his comments against the settlers into perspective, noting that his statements were made within the context of the vitriolic public debate in Israel.

“He wanted us to be aware of his concern for the settlers,” said Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, another participant in the meeting, who chairs the social action committee of the RCA.

Despite its official support for the declaration of principles, the RCA has sent a 150-member delegation to Israel to protest the government’s policies.

And one former president of the organization, Rabbi Max Schreier, proceeded immediately after meeting with Rabin to a news conference announcing a campaign against the Rabin government and its peace plan.

The campaign is to be conducted under the umbrella of a newly formed World Committee for Israel, which says it is a non-partisan group of Jews and Christians that includes 150 rabbinic authorities in Israel and the United States as well as 150 active and reserve members of the Israel Defense Force.

The group’s campaign will begin with a full-page advertisement in The New York Times scheduled to coincide with Rabin’s visit to Washington.

“You can ignore rabbis. You can ignore generals. But you can’t ignore both!” declares the ad, which is addressed to President Clinton and the prime minister.

The ad warns of the threats to Israel that could be posed by Katyusha rockets fired from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also warns of the risks to the Israeli water supply, because one of its main aquifers is in the West Bank.

It declares that “it is our moral obligation to clarify, explain and communicate the nature and substance of these threats to Israeli security while there is still time to avert catastrophe.”

The ad itself does not say what, if anything, should be done about the already-signed declaration of principles.

Manfred Lehmann, chairman of the World Committee, said the unwritten bottom line is that Rabin “has to have new elections.”

“We have a saying the Jews in Arab lands have always taught their children,” said Rabbi Abraham Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, who, along with Lehmann, did not meet with Rabin.

“You cannot trust an Arab, even after 40 years in the grave. So now we’re going to trust them when they’re alive?

“How can anyone in their right mind believe Arabs?” he asked.

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