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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Officials seek to reassure Jews as Israel ponders further pullback

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 (JTA) — Amid stepped-up U.S. pressure on Israel to turn over another sizable portion of the West Bank to the Palestinians, top U.S. diplomats are seeking to reassure a largely anxious American Jewish leadership. Martin Indyk, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told about a dozen Jewish leaders in a conference call Wednesday that the United States would work with Israel — not around it — in its efforts to move the peace process forward, according to participants in the 40-minute call. “The administration reached the point of concern that they were walking into a crisis” with the American Jewish community about U.S. pressure on Israel, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Echoing the assessment of many who participated in the call, Foxman said the officials were “calming” as they stressed that the United States “is not dumping on Israel.” Indyk was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday before traveling to Syria to discuss the stalled Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Dennis Ross, special Middle East coordinator, and top State Department official Wendy Sherman joined Indyk on the call, which participants described as a fact-finding briefing without criticism or praise for U.S. policy. The call came one day before Netanyahu convened his senior ministers to discuss final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and a further redeployment in the territories. The flurry of activity comes as a prelude to another round of Middle East talks with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, which are scheduled to take place in Europe next week. Albright is slated to meet separately with Netanyahu and with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Plans are in the works for a separate Netanyahu-Arafat meeting. The Americans expect Israel to present substantive proposals for a further troop pullback in the West Bank. But Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh told Israel Army Radio on Thursday he doubted that the government would conclude its debate in time for Netanyahu to present Albright with any detailed proposal at their meeting. “We are speaking of a very serious subject,” he said. However, Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel Radio that the prime minister must come to the meeting with Albright with a substantive proposal or Israel would find itself isolated internationally. At their meeting in Paris a week ago, Albright told Netanyahu that the United States expected a “credible, meaningful and sizable” proposal from Israel regarding the scope of the further redeployment. Israeli media reports said Albright was not expected to accept anything less than 12 percent. Back in the United States, meanwhile, some Jewish officials participating on the conference call with U.S. officials expressed concern that the Clinton administration has placed the burden of moving the peace process forward on Israel without discussing Palestinian compliance with the Oslo accords, especially with regard to a crack down on terrorism. In response, Ross told the group that Albright would look for commitments from both parties. According to participants, Ross said the United States is trying to develop an approach with the Palestinians that meets Israeli concerns and is trying to develop an approach with the Israelis that meets Palestinian concerns. Ross said there has been “measurable improvement” in Palestinian security cooperation with Israel since Albright’s visit to the region in September. Meanwhile, there were signals this week that Albright has made progress in her request for a double-digit redeployment of Israeli troops. The Palestinians have been demanding at least 30 percent more of the territory. Palestinians already control about 27 percent of the West Bank. Israeli media reported that Levy, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and National Minister of Infrastructure Ariel Sharon have agreed to a map that would allow for a 12 percent redeployment. The United States publicly rejected an earlier, informal Israeli plan to redeploy from 6 to 8 percent of the West Bank. Defense Ministry officials denied that one of the maps drawn up by Mordechai handed over 13 percent of land. Before the call, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent a letter to President Clinton, urging that when differences arise between the two countries, they should be “dealt with directly and not in the public arena.” The letter also said, “Israel should not be expected to make new concessions while prior commitments are not honored by the Palestinian Authority.” This week’s conference call was also noteworthy because it marked the second time in as many months that the Clinton administration put together its own invitation list for a Jewish briefing. The State Department purposely excluded Jewish officials who do not favor the Oslo peace process, sources said. Among the organizations represented on the call were: the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the Israel Policy Forum, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, Americans for Peace Now and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. (JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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