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Jewish Groups Uncertain About U.S. Troops in Bosnia

Jewish groups are awaiting the outcome of Bosnia peace talks before deciding whether to support the dispatch of U.S. peacekeeping troops to help enforce a settlement.

“If it is a carefully defined peacekeeping role, it’s one we would support,” said Jason Isaacson, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee.

With U.S. – brokered peace talks set to begin between Bosnia’s warring parties in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 31, a consensus has formed among Jewish activists that the administration’s leadership is generally on target, though long overdue.

“It’s very clear that after many years, the United States has taken a very significant role in trying to bring an end, using the military card and the diplomatic card,’ Isaacson said. “I think finally Washington is getting it right.”

Last week, the Clinton administration began seeking congressional and public support for sending 20,000 U.S. ground troops to police a Bosnia peace accord, if one is achieved. The peacekeeping operation could last one year and cost up to $1.5 billion.

Although the president has the authority to send troops abroad, Congress can deny funds for any military operation. Without a clearly defined U.S. role in enforcing a peace agreement, congressional approval of a troop deployment remains uncertain.

In a letter sent last week to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Clinton said he would seek a congressional resolution of support before sending ground forces to Bosnia.

He said, however, that he reserves “the constitutional authorities of the presidency” – a reference to the War Powers Act, which permits the president to deploy troops without congressional consent, but for not more than 90 days unless Congress passes a joint resolution approving such action.

Jewish groups have long been vocal in decrying the atrocities in Bosnia- Herzegovina, advocating a lifting of the arms embargo and calling for air strikes.

George Specter, associate director of B’nai B’rith’s public policy center, said he is encouraged by the breakthroughs but has a “sense of regret and sadness that NATO air power” was not used “much earlier, because thousands of lives could have been spared.”

Most major Jewish organizations have consistently supported an assertive U.S. posture toward settling the conflict, but they have not yet taken a position on a potential U.S. peacekeeping force.

“We continue to be strongly supportive of the U.S. peace initiative and of the combined use of carrot and stick approaches in bringing about a cease-fire and ending ethnic cleansing,” said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

However, at least one organization – the Jewish War Veterans – has declared outright opposition to the deployment of U.S. ground forces as part of a peacekeeping mission, saying that U.N. peacekeepers already have become “tragic pawns” in the civil war.

“There is no vital national security interest in the former Yugoslavia,” the Jewish War Veterans said in a statement. “American entrance into this quagmire can lead to a protracted engagement involving U.S. troops.”

Jewish groups have indicated that they will continue to meet with and send letters to members of Congress and the administration, lobbying in support of U.S. involvement on bringing an end to the four-year conflict.

One longtime Jewish activist who has been outspoken about the United States’ moral imperative to intervene in Bosnia stressed the importance of congressional backing of a peacekeeping venture.

“I find it very disheartening, and I’m almost embarrassed when I hear important people saying things like, `Some of our soldiers might be killed,” said Hyman Bookbinder, former director of AJCommittee’s Washington office. “When this country made a decision to have an army, we made a decision to put our men in harm’s way.”

Jewish support for a U.S. peacekeeping role remains equally critical, Bookbinder added.

“I’ll be very disappointed if Jewish institutions and Jewish leaders don’t express positive support for what our government is trying to do,” he said. “Those of us who remember the Holocaust and talk about the genocide and say `Never again,’ we’ve got to show a willingness to take risks” to bring an end to the conflict.

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