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NEWS ANALYSIS U.S. administration responding to Jewish concerns of pressure

WASHINGTON, May 12 (JTA) — The organized American Jewish community is warning the White House that it has gone too far. After giving President Clinton a pass as he sought for months to get Israel to break the Middle East impasse, Jewish groups this week objected with near unanimity as Israel increasingly faced pressure, blame and perceived ultimatums. Stung by the charges, the Clinton administration was quick to respond to the Jewish concerns, sending U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright before the cameras to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Israel”s security. For the first time since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power nearly two years ago, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rallied to oppose aspects of U.S. policy in the peace process. In a rare vote, 27-3, the umbrella body of 55 Jewish groups decided to send a letter to the president and issue a statement critical of the administration. The statement accuses the Clinton administration of crafting policies in the peace process that are perceived to “complicate the negotiations” and have “given rise to significant concerns and have created perceptions of a shift in U.S. policy toward Israel.” The Jewish response comes at a time of delicate and intense U.S. efforts to revive what many see as a dying peace process. It also comes as Netanyahu was embarking on a lengthy visit to the United States to shore up support for his policies. While American Jews remains deeply divided on the core issues of the peace process, most activists supported the Conference of Presidents” statement, saying that they are increasingly uncomfortable with the Clinton administration”s stance. The administration has been actively working to breathe life into the long-stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. While some hard-line Jewish groups have spoken out during the past few months against U.S. policy, most organizations gave Clinton their blessing as he sought to pressure the parties to move forward. But when a proposed summit in Washington didn”t occur this week because Netanyahu rejected the U.S. condition that he approve a 13 percent further withdrawal fro m the West Bank, the tone changed. “People are concerned that they have seen a shift in the approach and policy of the United States,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. Albright had set the deadline and issued the invitation only if Netanyahu would agree to the plan. If not, she told him in London last week, the United States would re-evaluate its approach to the peace process. By Monday, the White House and State Department had softened their rhetoric but continued to demand that Netanyahu agree to an American peace plan, which also requires the Palestinians to take concrete steps against terrorism. In an effort to ease the growing tensions between the administration and the American Jewish community, Albright met Tuesday with a small group of Jewish organizational officials. During the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, Albright went to great length to deny that the administration was imposing any pressure on Israel and promised to support security for Israel. The meeting came after the Clinton administration hosted a Monday Oval Office strategy session with Vice President Al Gore; Sandy Berger, the national security adviser; Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs; and top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross. Following that meeting, the administration announced that Albright would meet with Netanyahu in Washington again on Wednesday. At a Tuesday news conference, Albright publicly addressed the concerns presented by Jewish groups. “Our commitment to Israel”s security does not come with a time limit,” said Albright, wearing a gold dove pin given to her by Leah Rabin. “It will continue today, tomorrow and as long as the sun shall rise,” she said. Albright stressed that the administration”s proposals were a direct response to concerns raised by Netanyahu. She also said the United States would not walk away from the process, regardless of whether Israel accepts the U.S. plan or not. For months there was no consensus in the Conference of Presidents about how to respond to the U.S. administration. But all that changed after last week”s London meetings. According to Jewish organizational officials, it was a combination of many U.S. policies that taken together had crossed the line. These included: * the demand that Israel withdraw from a specific percentage of land, regardless of Netanyahu”s claim that it would endanger the security of the Jewish state; * opposition to such a demand on the grounds that it violates previous agreements that the size of the withdrawal is Israel”s decision and not subject to negotiations; * setting a deadline with a perceived ultimatum for an Israeli decision on turning over land to the Palestinians; and * first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton”s statement of support for a Palestinian state, which came last week in an exchange with a group of Israeli and Arab teen-agers. In addition there was a perception that the Conference of Presidents” previous failure to reach a consensus on the administration”s peace policy amounted to an endorsement. There were enough forces in the umbrella organization that did not want to leave that impression. At the same time, however, there continues to be deep divisions among American Jews and Jewish groups over whether Netanyahu is pursuing the right course and whether the Clinton administration needs to exert pressure to force movement on both sides. “The Jewish community is such that you can find validation for any point of view you want, from the left to the right,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, whose group was slated to hear from Netanyahu at its annual meeting in Washington on Thursday. In fact, the dovish Israel Policy Forum released a poll last week taken after the London talks showing 43 percent of American Jews believe the level of U.S. pressure on Netanyahu is “about right.” Another 11 percent called for more pressure, while 33 percent said there”s too much. Overall, the poll of 500 subjects, with a 4 percent margin of error, found, that 80 percent of those surveyed “support the Clinton administration”s current efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.” The three Jewish groups that opposed the conference statement were Americans for Peace Now, the Jewish Labor Committee and the umbrella organizations for the Reform movement. Rabbi Eric Yoffie said the Reform movement”s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, though generally supportive of Clinton”s policies was concerned about Clinton”s ultimatum to Netanyahu. However, he said his group voted against the Conference of Presidents” decision to send a letter, fearing that it would be used to broadly criticize the American role. It is against this backdrop that Netanyahu was coming for a previously planned trip to meet with key lawmakers and address the annual policy conference of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He was also slated to speak to the American Jewish Committee and lead New York”s Israel Day Parade. Acutely aware of the possibility that Netanyahu would use the trip to rally the Jewish troops against Clinton, White House and State Department officials planned to urge the Israeli premier to avoid stoking the rhetorical fire. But the outcome of the talks with Albright were likely to determine Netanyahu”s message to the Jewish groups. For their part, delegates to both the AJCommittee conference and AIPAC were slated to take their own message to Capitol Hill in the coming days. A draft of the AIPAC policy statement that will be debated at next week”s conference softens the lobby”s position on Palestinian statehood. Instead of calling on the United States to outrightly oppose a Palestinian state, this year”s policy draft proposes “opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state with full, unlimited sovereign powers.” The same statement also calls for supporting a political solution for peace between the Israel and Palestinians that would “permit the exercise of Palestinian self-government while excluding those elements of sovereignty that endanger the security of Israel.””