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Warm Welcome for Ehud Barak Signals New Era in U.s.-israel Ties

The White House officially ended three years of testy diplomatic relations with Israel this week as it rolled out the red carpet for Israel’s new prime minister.

But Ehud Barak’s relations with organized American Jewry got off to a more rocky start when some Jewish officials criticized the prime minister for giving short shrift to Israel-Diaspora relations.

Barak has scheduled meetings with three Jewish organizations during his six-day visit to the United States.

But he has limited his planned meeting Sunday with organized Jewry’s major umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to fewer than half of the 55-member organization.

A prime minister who campaigned as “the prime minister of all of Israel,” should be “the prime minister who reaches out to all of the American Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

An Israeli official said the prime minister’s limited meetings with American Jewry reflected his desire this trip to “keep the focus on Washington and the peace process.”

Indeed, Barak’s near-royal reception in Washington suggested that the nation’s capital is where the bulk of the action was taking place.

In marked contrast to his treatment of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton cleared a significant block of his schedule for two planned formal meetings with Barak, an overnight trip with the first lady to Camp David and a formal White House dinner.

Speaking in the Rose Garden before their first meeting — a one-on-one session without note-takers or aides — a relaxed Clinton and Barak sought to convey a warm relationship.

“Mr. Prime Minister, if your mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, were here today, I believe he would be very gratified seeing the leadership of his cherished nation in your most capable hands,” Clinton said.

The president promised that “as Israel again walks bravely down the path of peace, America will walk with you, ready to help in any way we can.”

Barak returned the praise, saying that “without the leadership that had been shown in the past by the president, and I hope will be shown in the future by the American administration, we won’t be able to reach a peace.”

Responding to reporters’ questions, both Barak and Clinton moved to downplay any areas of possible tension and policy disagreements.

Both leaders expressed support for downgrading the U.S. role as an arbitrator between the Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. role had shifted from facilitator to mediator as relations between the parties had steadily worsened under the last Israeli government.

And Clinton continued to distance himself from remarks made earlier this month, which were interpreted as supporting a right of return for Palestinians who fled Israel after the creation of the Jewish state.

Barak had criticized Clinton for saying he believed that Palestinians should be “free to live wherever they like.”

The matter is “explicitly an issue slated for final-status negotiations by the parties,” Clinton said Thursday, adding that “the United States has no business trying to prejudge these final-status issues.”

The gathering marked a sharp departure from Clinton’s unofficial policy of snub diplomacy that emerged when the peace process stalled under Netanyahu’s leadership.

In an indication of how bad relations had become between Clinton and Netanyahu, the former premier revealed this week that he had told Clinton, “get off my back, give me a break,” during a phone call with the president after Netanyahu lost the Israeli election in May.

“He called me after watching my resignation on television and thanked me for the work we had done together for security and peace,” Netanyahu said in an Israeli television interview on Wednesday.

Netanyahu quoted Clinton as saying, “`I know it’s not easy to lose an election. I was governor of Arkansas and I lost the elections. Know that everyone here says it’s only a matter of time until you return.’ So I said to him, `Bill, get off my back, give me a break.'”

After a night at Camp David, Barak was scheduled to don his hat as defense minister for a series of meetings at the Pentagon before traveling Friday afternoon to New York where he is scheduled to meet separately with Jewish media editors, the Israel Policy Forum and the Conference of Presidents.

There was confusion and consternation surrounding Sunday’s scheduled meeting with the Conference of Presidents. As late as Thursday, it was still not known who would be invited to participate.

One member of the conference, Morton Klein, the Zionist Organization of America, expressed disappointment that Barak was not inviting all the presidents to Sunday’s meeting.

“It’s traditional for prime ministers to meet with all the presidents,” said Klein. “It’s important for him to get the views of the broad spectrum and not simply select who he wants to meet.”

Others, however, looked forward to the meeting with optimism. Lester Pollock, who as a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents was already invited to attend, said he views Sunday’s meeting with Barak primarily as a “meeting to begin a new relationship and explore how the American Jewish community can support his quest for peace.”

Back in Washington next week, Barak is scheduled to meet again with Clinton on Monday and with members of Congress on Tuesday. He is also slated to meet with the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Barak’s meeting with Clinton came hours after a U.N. conference on Jewish settlements in the West Bank was adjourned in Geneva on Thursday less than 45 minutes after it was convened.

Attendees unanimously approved a statement that the Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable to the settlements and that the conference will be reconvened if Israel fails to change its settlement policy.

The conference was the first meeting of the parties to the convention for any reason since the treaty was adopted in 1949 as a measure to protect civilians from the kinds of force, intimidation and transfer of populations that characterized Nazi expansionist aggression.

Although Israel and the United States repeatedly criticized the meeting as a political manipulation of humanitarian law aimed at forcing Israel’s hand on the issue of settlements, the Palestinians refused to budge on their insistence that the meeting take place.

According to Israeli officials, nearly half the nations who are signatories to the convention did not show up, and the majority of those who did attend sent low level representatives.

In addition to Israel and the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand officially boycotted the event.

“The fact that the Geneva process was effectively blocked will enable Israel to focus now on advancing diplomatic efforts with the Palestinians, in the bilateral framework, without multilateral interference,” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, said in a statement Thursday.

Citing Barak’s meetings in Washington, Gold said the insistence to hold the meeting “shows incredibly poor timing.”

France had joined Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority in pushing for Thursday’s meeting.

Some Jewish groups were more critical than the Israelis.

Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith, called the meeting “an offensive precedent in clear violation of the intent of the drafters” of the treaty.

“International humanitarian law has been politicized and demeaned in what appears to be the first of repeated efforts to abuse it,” said Schoenberg, who on Wednesday had testified at a House International Relations Committee hearing on the mistreatment of Israel at the United Nations.

(JTA staff writer Julie Wiener in New York contributed to this report.)

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