JERUSALEM (Dec. 16)
The Labor Party is trying to catch up with the Likud’s efforts to sell the party line on the peace process to American Jews.
Labor Party operatives are determined to fight any erosion of American Jewish support for the Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization accord, which, surveys showed, was overwhelming in the wake of the Sept. 13 signing.
But the party of Israel’s ruling coalition was left reeling from the recent public relations blitz in the United States by Likud luminaries, including its chief and their biggest nemesis, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Laborites lament that they have no one who possesses Netanyahu’s Americanized communications skills.
The climax of the latest Likud campaign came with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s call to oppose the peace policies of the elected Israeli government.
Shamir made the call, which outraged the Labor Party, before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in November.
For the past six months, Labor has been claiming it has awakened to the importance of close ties to American Jews after years of neglect, during which Likud saturated the arena with its people and ideology.
“In the Labor Party, there was total detachment,” conceded Isaac Herzog, a lawyer and son of former President Chaim Herzog.
Herzog is chairman of the party’s “America desk,” formed earlier this year to right the mistakes and to make and keep close connections to Jews and others in the United States.
“We ignored this political arena (because) we didn’t understand” its importance, he said.
The party is strongly trying to change this.
Almost every government minister has been to the United States within the past six months. In addition to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the list of visitors includes Trade Minister Michael Harish, Justice Minister David Libai, Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Health Minister Chaim Ramon and Police Minister Moshe Shahal, who was due to visit this week.
The party also has been encouraging mainstream Jewish organizations, like Israel Bonds, to tap young, charismatic Knesset members for their events.
“Many of the organizations don’t know our people,” said Stanley Ringler, director of the party’s America desk.
At the same time, he noted, there are logistical problems with dispatching the legislators.
Labor enjoys a small Knesset majority, making it difficult to spare members, even to sell the party’s message abroad.
‘LIKUD TRIED TO CORRECT THE DAMAGE’
As another prong of the strategy, the Labor Party had a big presence at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations last month in Montreal.
“We decided to (make) a clear political declaration that we are interested in this community,” Herzog said. But this, he noted wryly, is what set off the latest contest with the Likud, which was not present at the G.A.
“Likud tried to correct the damage,” Herzog said, by sending “a massive flood” of its leaders, starting with Shamir, who stunned Labor party officials with his call for government opposition.
Herzog noted that Labor was disturbed that there was “no clear counter-reaction to the call” and termed Shamir’s action “unprecedented.”
Shamir, Ringler said, “cynically exploited the Jewish public trust” that, even now, is placed in him because he held Israel’s top position.
Statements by Likud leaders against the PLO accord make an impact because, while there is very broad support for the accord among Jews, “it is not deep,” he said.
“There is a great difficulty for Jews to absorb change in policy, especially the necessity to deal with the PLO,” Ringler said.
Hagai Meirom, a young Knesset member the Labor Party is trying to promote, was in the United States this month to speak for Israel Bonds and to debate Likud party members on the peace process.
Before he left Israel he said his party was “terribly concerned by the Likud propaganda” against the peace process in the United States in recent weeks.
“I’m going to persuade American Jewry to give a chance to this process and to tell them that the risks are calculated risks and that the Israeli Army is strong enough, even if it fails,” he said.
“We are facing lots of troubles” in Israel, he noted, “but we don’t have to give in to the expectations of the rejectionists who want to murder both Jews and the peace process. We have to proceed.”
“We want American Jewry to believe the peace process is the right thing to do right now and the recognition of the PLO was the only chance to proceed,” he said.
“We are tightening any linkage we can with the Diaspora,” said Herzog.
Ultimately, he said, he wants American Jewry to understand that Labor is “a movement that carries the weight of history” and considerable achievement.
“I don’t think the Jewish community is right wing. It just hasn’t been (exposed) to us.”