Israel’s peace policies received a loud endorsement from a major umbrella organization of American Jewry this week.
The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council voted Monday to “strongly support” the peace process, after an effort to torpedo the resolution received only three votes from the nearly 200 community relations councils and the 12 national agencies that comprise the council.
The final resolution passed unanimously.
“This seems to us such a rare opportunity and moment to express support for the democratically elected government of Israel’s position,” said Leonard Cole, a vice chair of the organization, who introduced the resolution.
The NJCRAC vote was seen as significant by long-time advocates of the dovish policies underlying the current peace process, since the NJCRAC plenum has in recent years hosted the most free-wheeling debate on Israeli policies under a broad American Jewish communal umbrella.
In those past debates, the balance of power was usually held by people worried about the policies of right-wing Likud government, but convinced that American Jews should not meddle in internal Israeli affairs. With government policy now in the hands of the doves, supporting the government was easy.
“After years of saying we should support the government of Israel, it would be the height of hypocrisy for us now to oppose it,” said David Luchins, a member of the NJCRAC executive committee and representatives of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
The virtually unanimous support was particularly striking because the day before the vote was taken, Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Likud Party, made an hourlong address attacking the policies of the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Netanyahu’s speech followed an address by Yossi Beilin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister.
This was first time that a spokesman for the Israeli opposition spoke at a central NJCRAC forum, on par with a government figure.
“We got a call from Likud asking if they could send a senior representative to the plenum,” explained Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of NJCRAC. “The culture of NJCRAC is inclusive and deliberative, and expressive of all points of views.”
Rubin said the conference planning committee must decide if an invitation to an opposition leader will be extended for future conferences. “It would be my recommendation it be done,” he said.
“I think it was very healthy that we had a debate here reflecting the debate taking place in Israel,” said Lee Adlerstein, who chairs the Community Relations Committee of the MetroWest Commission on Jewish Security and the Bill of Rights.
Although both Israeli leaders were greeted warmly, the standing ovation was reserved for Beilin.
Many delegates agreed that Netanyahu was the more articulate speaker, but were not persuaded by hiss hard-line remarks.
“The resolution’s passage reflects a strong consensus with in the American Jewish community that the peace process is a very good thing,” said Adlerstein.
“While we don’t want to tell the Israelis what to do to protect their security, the community wants to see negotiations move forward,” said Adlerstein.
“People in the community who are opposed to the peace process found themselves in a very small minority,” he added.
One of the strategic goals outlined in the resolution is an educational campaign to be mounted by the Jewish community to broaden support for the peace talks and for U.S. involvement in the process.
The resolution also called for the United States to “deepen the strategic alliance with Israel and maintain current levels of foreign aid”; press Arab countries to end the economic boycott of Israel; and monitor Palestinian compliance with its agreements with Israel.
NJCRAC also applauded the Clinton administration for its role “both diplomatically and economically in facilitating the peace process” as well as the contributions made by the Egyptian government.
In their speeches Sunday, both Beilin and Netanyahu said the Israeli people, not the government, should make the final decision on the peace agreements. Beilin said this should be accomplished with a national referendum; Netanyahu, noting the Knesset must first approve a mechanism for such a referendum, advocated new elections.
“More and more people are understanding territories cannot prevent another war,” said Beilin. “We do not need any more wars with Syria in order to understand that Syrian missiles are closer to us than the missiles of Iraq and no amount of land will ever prevent those missiles from flying over us.”
Netanyahu disagreed with this assessment, maintaining that land is crucial for security. He said he did not believe it was necessary for Israel to relinquish one inch of land to achieve peace.
Israel, he said, must remain on the Golan Heights. After 1967, when Israel captured the Golan Heights from the Syrians, “instead of them topographically. We’ve now had a period of 21 years in which nothing has happened on the Golan Heights,” he said.
In the West Bank, he referred to the “stone wall” of the Judean Hills preventing Jordan from attacking Israel. “We will not have peace if you give up a stone wall,” he said.
The Labor Party speaker took a different approach, maintaining that the status quo cannot remain. “We can really live in a very different world than the one in which we live today,” said Beilin. “After many years of missed opportunities, the government of Israel took a bold decision. We talked to the (Palestine Liberation Organization) and very soon, here will be autonomy in Gaza and Jericho.”
The deputy foreign minister said he believes this will come in the form of a Jordanian-Palestinian federation. As for Syria, he said the extent of the withdrawal from the Golan will depend on President Hafez Assad and his willingness to negotiate with Israel.
Delegates also heard from Dennis Ross, special Middle East coordinator for the U.S. State Department, who emphasized that time was a crucial factor in the peace process.
It is important, Ross said, “to balance the concept of getting it right, with the concept of getting it right in a reasonable amount of time.”