Two Jewish groups merge amid alarm over flagging peace process

NEW YORK, May 6 (JTA) — Two American Jewish organizations promoting the Middle East peace process have decided to merge amid their growing alarm that the process is unraveling. The Israel Policy Forum, based in New York, and Project Nishma, in Washington, D.C., will come together, beginning next month, under the IPF name.
Together, their leaders say, they can work more effectively to help “salvage” the peace effort. Both believe that the United States must play a central role in mediating and resolving the conflict. The merger is the latest change in the landscape of an organized Jewry still grappling with the shift in policies around the peace process adopted by the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Groups most closely identified with the policies of the previous Labor- led government — including IPF, Project Nishma and Americans for Peace Now, which recently brought on a new executive director — have had to make the biggest adjustment. “Concern that the peace process was falling apart caused leaders of both organizations to try to figure out a way to strengthen our efforts so that would not happen,” said Theodore Mann, the co-chair of Nishma since its founding nine years ago. He will become the merged group’s new executive chair. Both insiders and observers say the move is a healthy and logical one, given the similarity of the two groups’ outlooks and missions. IPF has focused mostly on polling of American Jewish attitudes and analyzing the peace process from an economic point of view, said Jonathan Jacoby, the IPF executive vice president who will remain the top professional at the newly configured entity. By merging with Nishma, he said, IPF will expand its programming on Israeli security matters, Nishma’s longtime expertise. “We are not a lobby and are not planning to become a lobby,” he added. Tom Smerling, the current executive director of Nishma, will head the IPF Washington office and be second in charge. He said the primary mission of the new IPF will be “to educate Jewish opinion leaders about the security and economic benefits of the peace process, and make sure the American government knows the majority of American Jews support American diplomatic leadership in resolving the current crisis.” When asked how far his new group would go in criticizing Israeli government policy when it believed it did not serve the peace process, Smerling said the new organization would be “concerned” about any steps by any parties that “tend to erode trust and confidence building.” But, he added, “commenting on the policies of the Israeli government is not our focus.” As for endorsing a U.S. Middle East policy when it is at odds with Israel, Smerling said a “top priority” is ensuring a close U.S.-Israel relationship is “unwavering.” Still, Nishma issued a statement recently defending President Clinton for comments he made criticizing Israel’s construction of Har Homa, the Jewish housing site in the southeastern portion of Jerusalem. The group thereby departed from the position of many Jewish organizations, which had attacked Clinton for his criticism.
In a joint statement explaining the merger, Michael Sonnenfeldt, the current IPF chair, and Mann said, “In recent months, that crisis has prompted many prominent American Jews to step forward — some for the first time — and ask what role they can play to ensure that the promise” of peace is not lost. The new IPF aims to help them. Smerling said it will “give a voice to the untapped silent majority” of American Jews who, surveys show, support the peace process and favor an active U.S. role in that process. The message will be disseminated through policy analysis, scholarly papers, briefings and the media, he said.
A harbinger of the merger appeared in recent newspaper ads published under both names. The ad lauded the U.S. government for its efforts to help broker an enduring settlement that would “ensure Israel’s security, prosperity and well-being.” The more than 100 signatories included prominent names in business, philanthropy and the Jewish organizational world, many of whom will sit on the group’s board and advisory councils. Mann, a Philadelphia attorney, is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a past president of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. Observers say the merger reflects a union of two organizations with disparate styles. They say IPF’s “heavy hitters” in U.S. and Israeli business who are outside the Jewish organizational mainstream, and its connections with the U.S. administration, will complement Nishma, which has been known for more outspoken political stands, but has been limited by lack of resources. Some say changes for IPF were inevitable after the Labor government lost the elections in Israel last May. IPF’s stock in trade had been its close relationship with that government and it tried hard to reposition itself as non-partisan after Labor lost. Gail Pressberg, a consultant for Americans for Peace Now, said the consolidation “makes a lot of sense.” APN, also a vocal supporter of the peace process, has recently gone through its own staff changes. Debra DeLee, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and a longtime labor organizer, was named executive director, succeeding Gary Rubin.

NEXT STORY