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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Up close and personal: Visitors witness conflict over Har Homa

JERUSALEM, March 5 (JTA) — A delegation of American Jewish leaders this week ran headlong into the conflict over Israeli plans for Jewish construction in eastern Jerusalem. Members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, here on their annual mission, stopped to visit Har Homa and to hear Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert describe plans to build thousands of housing units. But the visit Wednesday was interrupted by the shouts of two Arab Knesset members — Taleb Alsana and Abdel Malek Dahamshe — who accused Olmert of stealing property belonging to Palestinians. In front of several camera crews, Dahamshe shouted, “This is Palestinian land. The Israelis have already confiscated 80,000 dunams of Arab land by force.” Olmert countered that three-quarters of the land designated for the Har Homa building site had been expropriated from Jews. Olmert also told the group that the groundbreaking, originally set to begin earlier this week, had been delayed for “technical reasons,” and not because the government had caved in to international pressure. The incident did little to ease the concerns of those conference delegates who questioned Israel’s timing on the Har Homa issue. The conference late last week issued a statement announcing the “unanimous support” of its 53 member-organizations for Israel’s “unrestricted right to build within the municipality of Jerusalem.” It stopped just short of specifically endorsing the Har Homa construction. That relative restraint reflected a private international conference call in which some members said that although they support Israel’s right in principle to build anywhere within its borders, they take issue with the timing. They say they believe the current rush to build in eastern Jerusalem could potentially harm the peace process. Upon visiting the site in Jerusalem, Philip Meltzer, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said, “Our position is that Israel has every legal right to build in Har Homa or any other place in Jerusalem. What we do question is the wisdom of making that decision at this time.” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, acknowledged that while everyone agrees on the principle of Israel’s right to build, there are different views within the conference on issues of “timing, of what and where to build.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offended some members of the conference when he addressed the topic of religious pluralism during a speech to the group Tuesday. Netanyahu appeared to blame non-Orthodox groups for complicating the issue of non-Orthodox conversions. Under pressure from his Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu is supporting legislation that would reinforce Orthodox control over conversions in Israel. In an obvious reference to the Reform and Conservative movements, which have petitioned the High Court to recognize their right to perform conversions in Israel, Netanyahu said, “Somebody made it complicated by going to the court. It was stupid and irresponsible.” He added, “Now that the matter is in the court, the court is telling us, either you legislate or we will legislate something.” Some American leaders clearly took exception to the prime minister’s remarks. Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the prime minister “had implied that we were stupid and irresponsible for bringing the issue to the court. That’s blaming the victim.” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also took issue with Netanyahu, but gave him credit for saying he was “looking for creative solutions” to the conversion problem. As delegates spent four busy days meeting with political and military officials, the continuing unrest on Israel’s northern border also injected itself into the visit. In Metulla, on the Lebanese border, members witnessed an exchange of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah guerrillas stationed north of the border. While up north, the group made a special point of meeting with the family of Azam Azam, the Israeli Druse imprisoned in Egypt on spying charges. They assured the family that they would campaign for Azam’s immediate release. Accompanied by the military, the delegation also visited the tiny Jewish enclave in Hebron, where they were briefed by settler spokesman Noam Arnon. Stressing that the Israeli-Palestinian agreements prohibit Israelis from purchasing apartments or land in Hebron, Arnon urged the leaders to investigate whether they, as non-Israelis, can buy property in the overwhelmingly Palestinian city. Betty Ehrenberg of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, called the Israel visit her “most informative to date.” Recalling the shelling on the Lebanese border, Ehrenberg said, “Seeing things up close brought the complexity of the Lebanon situation home to me. I see why Israel’s defense force is facing a dilemma.” Hoenlein agreed. “Seeing things on the ground is always very helpful. “We got a sense of the complexity of the issues. It gives us a much better understanding.”