News Analysis: Amid Tense Times for Peace, U.S. Jewry Hangs in Balance

The Jewish community’s relief is nearly palpable now that Israelis and Palestinians have replaced the street with the negotiating table as the venue to resolve their disputes.

But there is a widespread feeling that last week’s Washington summit only bought some time and that the current talks at the Erez crossing are painfully fragile.

There is a wariness that any breakdown could spell an explosion of simmering tensions over differences on the peace process both among American Jews and between the Israeli and U.S. governments, putting Jews in the middle.

The American Jewish establishment rallied to a nearly monolithic defense of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu after Palestinian police fired on Israelis in the region’s recent deadly clashes.

The “trauma” of witnessing the violence of Israel’s peace partner served to unify the Jewish community, “regardless of whether people agree” with Netanyahu’s policies, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League.

But forged as it was in the face of crisis, that unity has its limits.

For the roughly 80 percent of American Jews who polls have shown support the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, those limits could be tested if the renewed talks do not bear fruit because the Likud-led government is perceived as dragging its feet.

“A majority of the American Jewish community wants to see the peace process continue and a good-faith effort by the Netanyahu government” to that end, said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

That determination is “hanging in the balance,” he said.

“In order for American Jewish leadership to maintain its ethical and moral respectability, it has to be honest and straightforward in calling on the government to uphold the agreements that have been made,” said Liebling.

The community’s traditional aggressive advocacy for the Israeli government also could be challenged after Election Day if President Clinton is re-elected and the two governments find themselves increasingly at odds over hot-button issues such as Israeli redeployment in Hebron and the expansion of Jewish settlements.

With Clinton unfettered by his current political constraints, some fear he would take a harder line with Israel and that confrontations could occur – - with Jews left to mediate.

Indeed, the memory of high U.S.-Israel tensions during the Shamir-Bush years makes it impossible to dismiss the prospect of difficult scenarios if the two administrations diverge, especially on final-status issues such as Jerusalem.

However, the prime minister met last week with about 35 Jewish leaders and made “no appeal for counterpressure,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Rather, Netanyahu offered an “honest and sober analysis” of the problems and “reiterated his commitment” to move ahead with the peace process, Hoenlein said.

“The president does not want to impose an agenda,” Hoenlein said, but “a lot will depend on events in the region.”

Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s trip to the region this week and his call for an urgent need for both sides to reach “concrete results as soon as possible” were clear signs that Israel will be expected to demonstrate with concessions the sincerity of its commitment to the process.

A lot “depends on what Netanyahu does,” said Gail Pressberg, director of the Washington office of Americans for Peace Now. If the talks on Hebron “become another way to drag things out, it won’t work.”

“If we see a stubborn Israel that angers the U.S. government, we’ll have very tense relations.”

Already, some tension was evident when the United Nations Security Council adopted a critical resolution Sept. 28 after Israel opened a new entrance to the ancient tunnel near Jerusalem’s holiest sites, triggering the Palestinian violence.

Some quarters privately expressed disappointment that the United States did not veto the resolution.

But such disappointment was marginal, with most insiders saying that the United States had to abstain in order to retain enough credibility to convene last week’s summit.

Indeed, most lavished high praise on Clinton for the investment he has continued to make in the peace process and the fine line he has managed to walk as a broker.

They said the summit helped bring both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat back from the brink while not putting untoward pressure on Israel for concessions.

Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, suggested that “core principles” and “verities” would prevent the United States from levying undue pressure on Israel and prevent Israel from bowing to such pressure.

“I’m confident,” he said, “that Israel will not be moved beyond bedrock security concerns regardless of external pressures” and “the United States understands that and has always expressed that understanding.”

Dr. Joseph Frager is one community activist on the right who is far less sanguine.

The entire Israeli-Palestinian accords were an “Americanized deal” that was “bad from the start and that went from bad to worse. I always thought it was illogical at best and self-destructive and suicidal at worst,” said Frager, president of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project/American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City.

He called the events of the past few weeks both a “bad omen” and a realization of a prediction “that arms being given to former terrorists would be used against us.”

At this time, he said, American Jewish responsibility “to reduce the pressure exerted on Israel is tremendous.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Peace Now’s Pressberg said that while the community is united in agreement that “Arafat must do everything within his power to control violence,” it is far from being uniformly behind this government.

Most people’s “sense is `enough is enough,’” she said. “There is an agreement to be implemented. Netanyahu can’t just say he’s in favor of peace.”

Said Raffel: “To the extent that there is dissent from Israeli government policy, the question will be whether [the dissenters] are prepared to publicly manifest it, and how. Will it be inside the tent or out?”

The pressure to keep it inside already was much in evidence in recent days. Foxman said he found “distressing” certain statements from Jewish and other quarters that he felt demonstrated “moral equivalency” between Israeli and Palestinian actions.

“Let’s say opening the door to the tunnel was a horrendous mistake, or motivated by animus,” he said. Still, “it can’t be equated with the Palestinian police turning guns on Israelis.”

Foxman’s outrage prompted him to take out a full-page ad on behalf of the ADL in the The New York Times on Oct. 2 condemning Palestinian violence.

One statement issued by the American Jewish Congress drew a lot of attention for its criticism of “both sides.”

“Israel cannot afford to attack Palestinian sensibilities unnecessarily as it defends its sovereignty over Jerusalem,” said the statement. “At the same time, it is no less necessary for the Palestinians to abjure all actions and rhetoric which promote violence and to deploy their police force to ensure maintaining order.”

Phil Baum, AJCongress’ executive director, said he was surprised to be “confronted” by both Israelis and Jewish leaders “taking me to task” for criticizing the Israeli government.

“This was not our intention. Our intention was to reflect the anxieties of many American Jews over the explosion of violence. We had hoped those days were behind us.”

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