Behind the Headlines: American Jewish, Arab Groups Finding a Common Peace Policy

Americans for Peace Now and the National Association of Arab Americans have jointly called on the Israeli government to evacuate settlers from the West Bank town of Hebron and remove settlements in the Gaza Strip.

In asking that settlements be dismantled, APN is moving beyond the policy of the Israeli government, but is following the positions of its Israeli parent organization, Peace Now.

The call came in a wider policy statement concerning the Middle East peace process the groups issued in Washington on March 25.

The groups heralded the statement as the first joint policy recommendations related to the peace process made by mainstream American Jewish and Arab American organizations.

“The fact that we can carve out a joint agenda is important in terms of building support for the peace process here in this country,” said Gail Pressberg, co-director of APN’s Washing ton office.

“We made these recommendations that reflect the least common denominators on both sides, as to what it takes to nudge the process forward, and to engage in a qualitative jump forward that would transcend the current difficulties,” said Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans.

The association, which bills as the premier Arab lobby in Washington, is seen as the closest equivalent in the Arab American community to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

The two groups plan to take their joint case to Capitol Hill.

This lobbying will continue a trend in which American Jewish groups within the mainstream umbrellas of AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations act independently in Washington on issues related to Israel.

In recent weeks, the Zionist Organization of America launched a drive against Strobe Talbott’s nomination as deputy secretary of state and for a congressional resolution urging the administration to veto a United Nations resolution concerning Israel, despite the decision by AIPAC not to fight those battles.

“This is new,” said an Israeli official, “the sense that Jewish organizations who are part of the mainstream can lobby on Capitol Hill to force Israel to take position X, Y or Z. The proliferation of this is new.”

While APN has long lobbied independently, that became a central issue when it joined the Conference of Presidents last year. In the vote on admitting APN, AIPAC abstained precisely over the issue of APN’s lobbying plans.

But the Israeli official indicated that the feeling among many organizations that it is legitimate to work independently on Capitol Hill reflects a broader shift in the nature of the Israeli-American relationship, and reaction to that shift by Jewish groups well to the right of APN.

“In the past, the Israeli government used the American Jewish community in order to stall and hide from various pressures,” said the official. “Today the Israeli government is moving ahead, usually in coordination with the United States. So a few interest groups who are trying to slow down the Israeli government are today trying to use Congress to force Israel to change its course.”

Gary Rubin, APN’s executive director, said that unlike groups on the right, “we’re not challenging fundamental Israeli policy. What we’re saying is that a very worthwhile peace process is under way that needs to be accelerated.”

Rubin said that removing the settlements is not a matter of appeasing Palestinian demands, but something that needs to be done in Israel’s interests.

The settlers in Hebron, he said, “are committed opponents to the peace process.”

And for Israel to maintain security of the roads used by Gaza settlers, he said, would require a level of Israeli military presence inconsistent with Palestinian self-rule.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has resisted calls to remove settlers from Hebron, which have been endorsed by nearly half of his Cabinet.

He has also been adamant against removing settlements in Gaza, saying that would be a violation of the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization declaration of principles, which reserves discussion of settlements for negotiations that are to follow the implementation of autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

At the same time, Rabin has been indicating that he sees the Hebron settlements as being more a threat to Israeli security than an aide to it, and has made reference time and time again to the precedent said by the Likud government of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin of evacuating Jews from the settlement of Yamit, in the Sinai, as part of the peace with Egypt

All this has led to wide speculation in the Israeli press, and fears among settlers, that Rabin just might implement the sort of unilateral, security- justified evacuation of settlers that Peace Now has called for.

“We sat and talked until we came up with the language,” said Pressberg of APN’s Washington office.

“It was very important to us that security measures not be tied to resuming the peace talks, that they happen in parallel,” she said.

In another case of directly addressing Israeli concerns, the joint statement calls on both Israel and the PLO to “promptly” implement and honor the commitments reached last Sept. 13, including PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s letters recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and promising to change the PLO charter.

The Jewish and Arab groups also called on the Clinton administration to “actively support adequate and effective security measures that will guarantee the safety and protection” of the civilian Palestinian population in the territories.

They called on the Clinton administration to take a “more active and assertive role” in the Middle East peace talks.

And they asked for negotiations over the “final status” issues, including borders, settlements and Jerusalem, to begin promptly “so that uncertainties do not create an even more volatile situation.”

Under the terms of the Israel-PLO declaration, final status talks are to begin by Dec. 13, 1995.

While the joint statement reflects the finding of a new policy consensus between the Jewish and Arab group, it is not the first time the National Association of Arab Americans has worked with some of its Jewish counterparts.

In December 1992, it issued a call with the American Jewish Congress for the incoming Clinton administration to assign high priority to a advancing Middle East peace. Also with the AJCongress, it sponsored a reception following the signing last September of the Israeli-PLO accord.

And the association has been playing a leading role in a coalition on behalf of Bosnia that includes several Jewish organizations.

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