At the same time that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is trying to convince American Jews that he is on the proper path toward peace, he is also asking them to mind their own business.
In a series of meetings with Jewish leaders and editors from the Jewish media, the prime minister’s main target of wrath over American Jewish involvement in the peace process was the increasingly vocal segment of those opposed to his policies.
But he also sent a message to American Jews in general that their role in the Israeli-Diaspora partnership should center on philanthropy – and more of it.
“As far as the issues of war and peace, it is a matter to be decided by the Israelis alone in a free, democratic system, Rabin told a small group of Jewish editors here Saturday night.
Lashing out at opponents who have been lobbying Congress on peace-related policies that are at odds with the Israeli government, Rabin said: “To try to undermine the policy of a democratically elected government, to pressure members of Congress is unprecedented in the relationship between Israel and the great, generous, prosperous Jewish community in the United States.”
He stopped short of repeating a position that he took in a meeting with Jewish organizational leaders last week that the continuation of such activity could threaten the Israeli-Diaspora relationship.
But he made clear that in his view, the partnership between Israeli and American Jews should be limited to two areas: promoting aliyah and the absorption of new immigrants and working for Jewish continuity.
The latest encounters with American Jews came in the wake of last week’s signing ceremony in Washington of the Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The agreement, which calls for the redeployment of Israeli forces outside Arab population centers and for Palestinian elections, will significantly extend Palestinian self-rule beyond the current autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip.
The meetings, especially with the Jewish media, were encouraged by Israeli diplomats in Washington and New York who are concerned that the Israeli government is out of touch with American Jewry.
Judging from the reaction of some to Rabin’s remarks, these diplomats may be right.
His comments, which he repeated for Israeli journalists on his way home to Israel on Saturday night, made front-page news in Israel, with Yediot Achronot, the country’s largest circulation newspaper, blasting the headline “Rabin Against the Jews” in its Sunday edition.
Although many in the organized American Jewish community applauded his strong stand against peace process opponents lobbying in Congress, many also took umbrage at the suggestion that when it comes to Israel, American Jewry should stick to philanthropy.
Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement, said he was troubled by what he termed Rabin’s “disparaging remarks” about the American Jewish community.
A former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a strong supporter of the peace process, Reich said Rabin “minimizes the advocacy role we have had over the years.”
Echoing the views of other Jewish leaders who attended the meeting after the White House ceremony, Reich said Rabin is contradicting himself when he asks for American Jewish support for the peace process and also tells American Jews to stick to aliyah and absorption.
But Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said he does not think that Rabin actually meant that American Jews should limit their agenda to fund raising.
“I’m sure he doesn’t mean that it’s not our business to fight international terrorism or to promote foreign aid to Israel,” Hoenlein said, citing some of the issues on his umbrella group’s agenda.
Rabin raised important issues about philanthropy and politics that “need to be wrestled with – and we’re talking about them,” Hoenlein said.
He said the way Rabin raised the issues and where he did it, when Jewish organizational leaders were expecting to hear about the Israeli-PLO agreement, “added to people’s negative reactions.”
In his meetings Rabin went even further on the issue of fund raising, saying that American Jewry should assist Israel only “on one issue” – the absorption of new immigrants – and it should be giving more than it now does.
Funds for such projects as rural communities, a traditional recipient of American-raised and Jewish Agency-channeled monies, are “obsolete,” Rabin said.
Sounding a note critical of the level of funds raised, he said Israel does not expect American and other Diaspora Jews to “do what the people of Israel have to do” in terms of financially absorbing new immigrants.
But, he said, he wants American Jews to “show your partnership not only by words.”
In Jerusalem, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Avraham Burg, criticized Rabin’s remarks, calling his attack on U.S. Jews “an historic error” and said Israeli-Diaspora relations should not be based solely on economic assistance.
Charles Goodman, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, said Jewish fund-raisers in America share Rabin’s concern that “fund-raising activities are not delivering as much to Israel as it should or as it has in the past.”
“We are determined to improve the situation,” Goodman said in a telephone interview from Chicago.
At a time of increasing local needs and shrinking dollars, many American Jewish communities have decreased their overseas allocations. The overall percentage of all overseas allocations, including to Israel, has declined from 50 percent to 42 percent in recent years, according to the United Jewish Appeal.
Goodman, who met with Rabin on Saturday and discussed these issues, said aliyah and absorption, along with education, are – and will continue to be – the Jewish Agency’s top priorities.
At the same time, however, he said the Jewish Agency has “some historic responsibilities” for other programs that “we must continue to honor.”
Fund raising aside, Rabin’s took pains during his three days in the United States to detail that is driving his government.
In a 45-minute introduction to a Saturday night interview with a half dozen editors of Jewish publications, Rabin traced the 3-year-old history of his government’s peace policies, starting with the collapse of communism and the end of the Persian Gulf War.
He reiterated his oft-stated position that extremist Islamic terrorist groups are the only alternative to Yasser Arafat and the PLO.
And the passionately offered his vision of Israel as a Jewish state, “not a binational state.”
“I want a Jewish state not only by the name or by so-called borders, but by demography, by society, by values,” he said.
Acknowledging that terrorism is the main obstacle to a successful peace, Rabin conceded that it is difficult to contain radical fundamentalists bent on suicide missions.
But he stressed that the PLO has “stopped terrorism” and that no Israeli was killed in a PLO terrorist act in the two years since Israel and the PLO signed its Declaration of Principles.
As for the West Bank settlements that, under the latest agreement, will remain as enclaves protected by Israeli forces, Rabin offered only limited guarantees.
“I’m committed that not one settlement will be uprooted during the interim settlement,” he said.
But he emphasized his view that settlements are “not a security asset” and that his primary concern is with the economic and social well-being of the overwhelmingly majority – 97 percent – of Israelis who live in Israel proper, not the 3 percent of the population that lives in Gaza, the West Bank and on the Golan Heights.
Urging continuing support for U.S. aid to the PLO, Rabin said there will not be peace with any Arab neighbor unless “that peace will be translated to the man on the street” in the form of economic advancement.
The prime minister said that if the United States, which has pledged $500 million, withdraws its commitment, then other donor countries – whose pledges total $1.7 billion – might follow suit.
Rabin himself lobbied members of Congress on the issue during his visit here.
Most American Jewish organizations back aid to the Palestinians, but a vocal minority has lobbied vociferously against continued support.
Aid to the Palestinians was one of the main issues Rabin was alluding to when he attacked American Jewish opponents of his peace policies.
Pointing to a recent American Jewish Committee survey showing that 63 percent of American Jews believe that Congress should demand PLO compliance with its accords before further aiding the Palestinians, Mortor Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, defended his right to lobby on this issue.
“This is U.S. taxpayer dollars; it is absolutely my business” to lobby Congress, Klein said, responding to Rabin’s attacks.
“Jews have a history of expressing concerns when they disagree with [Israeli] policies,” he said, adding, “I don’t believe that as long as PLO doesn’t its commitments there will be a real chance for peace.”