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NEWS ANALYSIS Israeli settlements place U.S. Jews in awkward role

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (JTA) — President Clinton”s public criticism of Israeli settlement policies last week put American Jews in a position they most dislike and fear — squarely between the U.S. and Israeli governments. It also exposed, however briefly, deep differences in the community that ordinarily are papered over by the preference for consensus. Some believed Clinton went too far and gave a boon to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, while others welcomed his frankness as a clear sign of his investment in the peace process. Days after the Netanyahu government announced that subsidies for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be restored, Clinton declared at a televised news conference that settlements “absolutely”” are an obstacle to peace. Since then, the administration has sought to balance its hard line with Israel by making public demands on the Palestinians. U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who was in Jerusalem over the weekend, pressed them to sign the agreement on Israeli troop deployment from Hebron and warned that further delays would create tension with the United States. But when Clinton, a president with an unimpeachable pro-Israel record, broke his pattern of using quiet diplomacy to express his differences with the Jewish state, he triggered a small crisis within the organized Jewish world. Settlements were once again the flashpoint in the U.S.-Israel relationship, recalling the painful tensions between the Bush and Shamir governments in the early 1990s. Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Israel”s ambassador to the United States, was pressed into action. He held at least two off-the-record conference calls with members of two umbrella organizations, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Sources say he emphasized the solidity of the U.S.-Israel relationship and its ability to withstand differences. He also sought to minimize the significance of the decision to reinstate the settlement subsidies, saying that it ends the “discrimination”” suffered by the settlers when the subsidies were halted by the Labor government. But the diplomat”s outreach failed to assuage the serious internal debate prompted by the incident. And this debate prevented these umbrella organizations from pronouncing their usual consensus postures in defense of Israel. “People are wrestling with the question of where the consensus is,”” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of NJCRAC, after the call, in which 50 people participated from across the country. Settlements “are an issue on which there always have been huge divisions.”” The Conference of Presidents, the master craftsman of consensus and go-between for the U.S. and Israeli governments, was conspicuously silent. “We know there”s no consensus on settlements,”” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the group”s executive vice chairman. He said the differences expressed on the issue during the conference call and elsewhere “were long-held,”” and broke down along “traditional lines.”” The conference”s failure to issue a statement in response to the president was a clear indication that there also were tensions over his approach. “This administration always prided itself on communicating its differences in private, and this obviously was not done in private,”” Hoenlein said. “We have to see what it represents, whether it is a tactical shift or an immediate response to circumstances.”” Meanwhile, feelings about both settlements and Clinton”s remarks were running high among member organizations of the conference. For its part, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstream pro-Israel lobby whose board chairman, Steve Grossman, has close personal ties to Clinton, tried to walk a fine line. It distributed a fact sheet and printed an article in its newsletter, Near East Report, emphasizing that the reports of settlement activity in the territories were exaggerated. At the same time, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr urged organizations during the conference call with Ben-Elissar to make “discrete contact”” with the administration at the highest levels to let officials know that “public unilateral criticism of Israel”” is not helpful to the peace process. It is unclear how much follow-up there was, but it sparked the ire of at least one member organization. Mary Ann Stein, co-president of the left-wing Americans for Peace Now, fired off a letter to Hoenlein and Leon Levy, chairman of the conference, saying that she disagreed with Kohr”s call for action. “I believe Israel is flirting with disaster and I applaud President Clinton for his strong position and his public statement which are made with Israel”s interest at heart,”” she wrote. “It is my belief that we should urge our members to communicate with the president our appreciation for his intervention.”” Stein took her own advice, praising the president in a letter. APN was not alone. Project Nishma, a dovish organization that supports the peace process, immediately issued an action alert, saying that the president had merely “reaffirmed the long-standing U.S. position”” on settlements and calling on its members to send a message of support to the White House. “Without Jewish support,”” the Nishma communique read, “Clinton may conclude that personal involvement in the peace process is not worth the political cost.”” Said Tom Smerling, Nishma director: “Netanyahu had pushed the issue of settlements so far, it was understandable that sooner or later the president would have to say something.”” “Clinton has so much political capital in our community, he can spend some without running out,”” Smerling added. Notably, the major defense organizations did not spring into action. The American Jewish Committee issued no statement, for instance, though its executive director, David Harris, was willing to comment obliquely on the president”s style of diplomacy. The problem with public criticism is “the law of unintended consequences,”” Harris said, adding that it “may embolden the Palestinian Authority to think it”s in their interest to hold out longer and postpone difficult decisions to increase pressure on Israel.”” The only communique from the American Jewish Congress was an opinion piece critical of the Israeli government”s settlement policy written by David Clayman, the director of the group”s Jerusalem office. “Netanyahu has succeeded in agitating the entire international community, even before a single new house is built in the territories,”” Clayman wrote. The Anti-Defamation League had issued a statement protesting the recent letter by former secretaries of state and national security advisers that criticized Israeli settlement policies. This time around, there were no formal statements, but Abraham Foxman, the ADL”s national director, minimized Israeli settlement activity and readily criticized Clinton”s comments. “I think it was an overreaction by the United States, partially due to frustration over the lack of progress in the peace process.”” For his part, Likud defender Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, refrained from attacking Clinton directly. But he issued a statement highly critical of the president”s surrogate in Jerusalem, Ambassador Martin Indyk, for reports that Indyk tried to block a housing project for Jews in predominantly Arab eastern Jerusalem. “If Ambassador Indyk was acting without the knowledge of the Clinton administration, his action should be rebuked. If he was acting with the knowledge of the administration, that would indicate a disturbing new trend in America”s Mideast policy,”” Klein said. One organizational official was privately pessimistic about the simmering differences in the community. “The handwriting is on the wall,”” he said. If there is no change in Israeli policy and the peace process unravels, there will be “more dissenting voices taking to the airwaves.”” “And the moment the American Jewish community becomes publicly rancorous, it is neutralized,”” said the official, who insisted on anonymity. Government officials who make decisions affecting Israel will find the Jewish community “less pertinent, easy to discount,”” he said. “The stakes are very high,”” he added.