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News Analysis: Role of Main American Jewish Group is Debated As Peace Process Unfolds

In the 10 months since Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, American Jewry’s leading umbrella organization has not faxed out one news release to hail Israel for the risks it has taken for peace with the Palestinians.

By contrast, in one week last year, the group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, issued three news releases hailing Israel for granting asylum to 84 Bosnian Muslim refugees.

Nor has the conference run any full-page advertisements in The New York Times this year supporting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s moves.

At the same time, several ads have been placed by right-wing Jewish groups, among them members of the conference, attacking Rabin’s policies and the idea of trading land for peace.

Old-timers remember the conference placing ads hailing Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai. In 1989, as then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s policies of settling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was creating a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, the conference took out three full-page ads to express solidarity with Israel.

The omission of similar efforts now is emblematic of what some say is a resounding silence emanating from the Conference of Presidents and other mainstream Jewish organizations when it comes to supporting the peace process.

While the Presidents Conference is financially one of the smallest Jewish organizations, as the umbrella body for 50 national Jewish groups it serves as the leading spokesman for the Jewish community on international affairs, and particularly matters regarding Israel.

CONFERENCE ORGANIZED 1991 LOBBYING EFFORT

It was the conference that organized the massive 1991 lobbying effort to win Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees from the United States.

“Our community knows what it is to mobilize on issues of vital concern,” said Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a group supporting the present peace process. “To date, we have not seen that kind of a mobilization about the peace process.”

Now, at a time when the organized American Jewish community could be scoring points by highlighting the far-reaching concessions Israel has made to reach peace with the Palestinians — such as the withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho — the Conference of Presidents has been relatively quiet.

Opponents of the peace process, by contrast, have been quite vocal, leaving some in the American public with the impression that the opponents’ view is the dominant one in the American Jewish community.

“If the only ads that appear are from the right wing, certainly there ought to be some kind of response to demonstrate that in the Jewish community not everyone shares that point of view,” said Adam Simms, co-editor of P.S., a liberal Jewish newsletter.

Last week, the topic came up at a meeting in which Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli ambassador to the United States, addressed the Conference of Presidents.

“Where are you?” is how one participant summed up the general theme of the meeting.

Rabinovich expressed “a general observation that the leadership of the community is not as out front in support of the peace process as are those who are raising questions about the peace process,” said another participant.

Officials with the Israeli Embassy and the Conference of Presidents denied that Rabinovich criticized Jewish leadership on the peace process.

But other officials with Jewish organizations said that criticism of Jewish leadership is precise ly what they have been hearing from Israeli officials in Jerusalem, Washington and New York.

“Everybody knows what is going on, but no one is willing to speak about it, because it harms the Jewish community,” said one such official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the conference, denied that there has been any weakness in the conference’s support for the peace process.

“We try to reflect the consensus of our member organizations,” said Hoenlein. “We have always left it to the government of Israel to make decisions on security issues.

“We had a discussion about doing an ad,” said Hoenlein. “It’s a question about what purpose it serves, the right time to do it, having the resources. Is it the most efficacious use of funds? The cost factor is a significant one.”

Hoenlein said that while the Conference of Presidents did not issue a statement at the signing of the Cairo accord — which put into effect the Palestinian self-rule agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization — Lester Pollack, chairman of the conference, attended the May 4 ceremony.

If the Conference of Presidents were to take a more high-profile role in promoting the peace process, evidence from surveys of American Jews taken over the past 10 months indicates it would find wide support among the community.

The most recent poll, which found 88 percent of American Jews supporting the peace process, was sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, an organization formed to rally American Jews behind Israel’s Labor government. Earlier polls, including one sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, showed similar findings.

“The poll demonstrates that there is an enormous potential for tapping into the community’s desire for the peace process to work,” said Jonathan Jacoby, executive vice president of the Israel Policy Forum.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the low-key reaction of mainstream Jewish organizations is “commensurate with the reality, which is exactly what’s happening in Israel.

“The Israeli public are more cautious, more circumspect, on where and how quickly (the peace process) is going,” said Foxman.

NOT NECESSARILY ITS ROLE

But if the Jewish organizational leaders who said their meeting with Rabinovich touched on the broader issue of support for Rabin’s initiative are correct, it would appear that the Israeli government is concerned that the lack of euphoria is becoming a political liability.

Liability or not, American Jewish organizations in general, and the Conference of Presidents in particular, do not necessarily see their role as actively supporting Israeli government policy.

“We represent a consensus of the member organizations of the Conference of Presidents,” said Hoenlein.

“The conference has generally supported the democratically elected government of Israel. It does not mean we support its policies, positions or statements. There are often differences even within the government on particular policies or aspects of policies.

“On the peace process, the conference supports Israel’s pursuit for peace, as we did before. We supported Shamir when he went to Madrid, (former Prime Minister Menachem) Begin when he went to Camp David. We support the search for peace, we don’t draw borders. That’s a decision for Israel and its people to make.”

Said one Presidents Conference veteran: “When there’s a very strong sentiment, like unity with Israel or support with the government for withdrawing from Sinai, taking risks for peace, that’s one thing. When the community is divided, there would be difficulty in arriving at a consensus statement.”

In fact, it is hard to remember a time when so many members of the conference have been so loudly at odds with a sitting Israeli government.

JOB IS ‘TO KEEP THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER’

“Part of our job is to keep the community together, which I think we have done quite well,” said Hoenlein. “Despite the divisiveness, we have presented a wide variety of views.

“We’re trying to move the debate to within the conference, so people will have their discussion within the conference, as a central forum where the entire leadership of the Jewish community can participate,” said Hoenlein.

He said the conference is working on a consensus statement about the peace process, and the issues “where there is — I think — a clear consensus: Jerusalem, the ‘right of return’ of Arab refugees, a Palestinian state.”

Hoenlein stressed that his organization has acted to support the peace process.

Examples he cited included protests to the Clinton administration about a proposal to open an American office in eastern Jerusalem to dispense aid to the Palestinian autonomous regions; efforts to clarify reports that the United States would prematurely forgive Jordan’s debts; and statements condemning PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s repeated failure to denounce terrorist attacks against Jews.

None of these measures, however, involve taking a stand in favor of Rabin’s controversial moves.

Most fall into the old category of opposing American favors toward Arabs.

This may reflect more than just the need to maintain a consensus with groups nervous about the peace process or nostalgic for the Likud.

As “defense agencies,” American Jewish groups are trained to react to threats.

If the community is indeed uncertain how to respond, it is not clear that it has been receiving strong signals, at least until now, from the current Israeli government.

This is in contrast to the Shamir years, when the prime minister’s office was in frequent contact with the conference, not only to explain policies but to help set strategy.

At last week’s meeting, Rabinovich reportedly offered some concrete suggestions.

Among them were Jewish organizational support for events marking the first anniversary in September of the accord with the PLO.

But one participant, personally highly supportive of the peace process, said the specific suggestions “were less important than the question: ‘why aren’t you planning, why aren’t you moving?’ “

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