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News Analysis: Jewish Split over Policies Spills over to Public Arena

An aggressive lobbying campaign to warn against American pressure on Israel has led to an unusually bitter and public split in the American Jewish community over both policy and tactics.

The effort, which resulted in a recent flurry of congressional letters, has also sent competing signals to the Clinton administration as it grapples with what to do next to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Following a lobbying blitz by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, 81 senators last week sent a letter to President Clinton, siding with Israel’s effort to prevent an American peace plan. More than 150 members of the House signed a similar letter.

The letters came after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had specifically urged American Jews to stop “portraying us as if we are shoving something down Israel’s throat” and had promised not to go public with an American plan to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The letter campaign prompted an angry response from the Clinton administration, members of Congress and some in the Jewish community.

The latest activity shifted the focus back to Washington amid efforts to find the seemingly elusive formula to restore Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

In their first meeting after returning from separate journeys abroad, Clinton and Albright met at the White House on Tuesday to be briefed by Dennis Ross on his recent visit to the Middle East.

No details of the discussion were released. But Clinton has decided to send Ross, the administration’s point man on the peace process, back to the region when Passover concludes later in the month, U.S. officials said.

It is at this critical juncture, with the administration running short on patience and also grappling with what to do next, that Jewish activists stepped up their efforts to be heard.

While divisions in the Jewish community about the flagging peace process and the proper U.S. role are not new, it is against this diplomatic backdrop that the debate over the congressional letters became especially significant.

Testifying to the lack of consensus in the Jewish community over the issues, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a heated meeting last week, did not endorse the Senate letter opposing pressure on Israel.

The letter, which evolved from an initiative by the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition, was sponsored by Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

But the Conference of Presidents, in an effort to strike a middle ground, decided this week to take action.

Without endorsing the Senate letter, the umbrella organization decided to thank the senators for standing up for Israel. At the same time, the group decided to send a letter to Clinton, supporting the administration’s continued role in the peace process and accepting the administration’s assurances that there will be no ultimatum, formal plan or effort to “second-guess Israel’s security,” according to a Jewish official involved in the process.

But the letters are likely to do little to quiet a growing anger on Capitol Hill and a sense of embarrassment among many in the organized Jewish community.

The embarrassment was stoked even further by a New York Times article Tuesday under a headline that declared, “Jewish Groups Go to Capitol Squabbling Among Themselves.

The push for the Senate letter marked the first time that AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, has launched a major lobbying effort on the peace process since the Clinton administration came up with a plan to ask Israel to withdraw from a further 13 percent of the West Bank.

The proposal, though never formally announced, makes the phased withdrawals contingent on concurrent Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism.

AIPAC’s effort followed intense lobbying on the part of the Israeli government to enlist U.S. Jewish support to thwart any U.S. pressure.

At least six senior Capitol Hill staffers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, lamented what several termed the “disgusting” lobbying display over the U.S. role in the peace process.

“It’s OK to have a difference of opinion in the Jewish community,” said one Jewish staffer.

“But the competing letters have taken our internal politics and made them public,” said this aide, who, like most on Capitol Hill, urged his boss to sign the AIPAC-endorsed letter but then complained about it privately.

This can only result in “a less effective pro-Israel strategy,” said another aide who is sympathetic to the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, had sent out three action alerts, including one on March 26 that urged Jewish activists to line up congressional support for the Mack-Lieberman letter.

“The problem now may not be so much the details of the `American plan.’ The real problem is danger: It is the very idea that the Government of the United States rather that the Government of Israel would decide Israel’s destiny,” the alert said.

In a move that angered some in the State Department, the alert quoted Martin Indyk, a former AIPAC official who now serves as U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. In June 1988, Indyk said he opposed U.S. pressure on Israel because “it provides an incentive for Israel’s adversaries to wait for the United States to deliver Israel.”

For its part, the Mack-Lieberman letter said, “It would be a serious mistake for the United States to change from its traditional role as facilitator of the peace process to using public pressure against Israel” particularly because “Israel has kept the promises it made at Oslo” and because Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat “himself repeatedly threatens renewal of widespread violence and continues to withhold full security cooperation with Israel.”

The Israel Policy Forum, an organization founded to support the peace policies begun by Israel’s former Labor government, directly challenged AIPAC on Capitol Hill by lobbying members to sign a different letter more supportive of the Clinton administration.

Sponsored by Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) and signed by 33 members of the House, including 15 Jewish representatives, the letter says, “American leadership in the peace process could once again prove decisive. That’s why we support your current effort.”

“It would be one of the great failures of American Jewry in our time” if the peace process collapsed “in part due to the administration backing away out of fear of political retribution from our community,” said Tom Smerling, IPF’s Washington representative.

For its part, AIPAC says its efforts represented the consensus position in the Jewish community.

“You do not get 81 senators in three days when there’s a disagreement in the community,” a senior AIPAC official.

But many on Capitol Hill and in the Jewish community do not support AIPAC’s claim that “U.S. pressure is far from imaginary.”

In fact, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was so angered by the critical tone of the Mack-Lieberman letter that he scribbled his own letter last week on the back of an envelope while on the Senate floor.

Albright answered Levin’s letter within 24 hours.

“The administration remains determined to pursue those negotiations and to do so privately without public disclosure of details of proposals while we are in the process of exploring them with the parties,” Albright wrote.

As for withdrawing from the process if no progress is made, Albright wrote, “we would have to make a judgment about how to proceed.”

In addition, Dennis Ross, in response to a question at an Anti-Defamation League conference here this week, said the administration “respects the opinion” of the Senate, but “at the end of the day, we have to make the decisions” on how to proceed.

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