Menu JTA Search

NEWS ANALYSIS Barak seeks U.S. Jewish support as he pursues his peace policies

WASHINGTON, July 19 (JTA) — Now that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has formed his government, set his peace policies and developed a warm relationship with President Clinton, he is working to line up the support of the American Jewish community. “Find a way to unite yourselves to send a clear and unequivocal message into the American political system” to support Israel”s peace policies, Barak urged American Jews, according to participants who attended a closed- door briefing for the Israel Policy Forum, a group that actively supports the peace process. Making Middle East peace is like “moving down a corridor with surprises coming at you from both sides,” Barak said during his six-day U.S. visit. While he expects surprises from Israel”s negotiating partners, and at times even from the United States, they should not come from American Jews placing obstacles in his path as he tries to reach agreements with Israel”s Arab neighbors, he said. His remarks came after announcing an ambitious 15-month deadline for setting a comprehensive framework for peace Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians while pushing the United States back into the role of facilitator rather than mediator. In seeking American Jewish support, Barak has his work cut out for him. He is about to move into final-status talks with the Palestinians to tackle the hardest issues in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process — Jerusalem, borders, settlements, statehood and refugees. He is also proposing to return some, if not all, of the Golan Heights to Syria, and he wants to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon within a year. Although Clinton spared no expense in welcoming Barak during his visit — he hosted the largest dinner at the White House during his presidency, made Barak only the third foreign leader to visit Camp David during his presidency and spent an unprecedented amount of time with him — disagreements between the United States and Israel will inevitably arise once the complex peace issues are put on the table. And it is at such times when the support of American Jewry has proven crucial. The American Jewish community overwhelmingly supports the peace process, surveys show, but those opposed to concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians have actively lobbied in Washington against such initiatives. So as Barak enters what he calls the “moment of truth” in the search for peace, he wants American Jews to help. At the same time, Barak said that he respected that the American Jewish community is “ independent and autonomous,” and that not everyone agrees on the issues. Unlike his mentor, slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who wrote off the Jewish community seven years ago in a way that was interpreted as “We don”t need you,” Barak tried to start off on a good note during his first visit since his May election. During his meetings with the Policy Forum, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, Barak made clear that he wants and expects the American Jewish community to work with — not against — him. “I told them, ”I need your support,” ” Barak said in a brief interview during Sunday night”s formal White House dinner. With President Clinton standing at his side, Barak said American Jews should stop creating partisan fights on Capitol Hill on issues such as those involving Palestinian compliance with the peace accords. American Jews should put “all of their retroactive differences aside” and work to restore bipartisan congressional support for the peace process, Barak told the three Jewish groups with whom he met. AIPAC, which was criticized by Barak”s aides last year for unnecessarily antagonizing the administration on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu, met with the premier Monday to try to find ways to work together. Indicative of the sensitivity of Barak”s relations with the group, AIPAC officials refused to comment on the substance of their meeting. But later in the day, AIPAC President Lonnie Kaplan went out of his way to express the group”s support for the peace process. “AIPAC, for its part, will spare no effort to support” Barak”s quest for peace, he said in a telephone interview. “Support for the peace process is support for Israel,” he said. But good will between AIPAC and Barak will not change the dynamic on Capitol Hill overnight, where lawmakers have worked to stake out positions supportive of Israel that some say complicate the peace process. The Netanyahu government, which had strained relations with the Clinton administration, often encouraged such initiatives. But with Barak now in power, the equation has been altered and the definition of a pro-Israel initiative is once again changing. A series of initiatives critical of the Palestinians are making their way through Congress, including a measure that would punish the Palestinian Authority if it does not extradite terrorists suspected of killing American citizens. The legislation could come up for a vote as early as this week. And already, some groups opposed to Israeli territorial concessions on the Golan Heights have begun to drum up congressional opposition to American participation if a peacekeeping force is part of an agreement. Such efforts to use Congress to delegitimize Israel”s peace partners have been denounced by the leaders of groups such as the Policy Forum. “Any one of these initiatives may in fact be good policy and useful in fostering [Palestinian Authority] compliance,” Marshall Breger, a Policy Forum activist, wrote in a recent op-ed. “Taken as a whole, however, they reflect a conscious effort to throw spikes into the newly energized peace train,” said Breger, a law professor who served in the Reagan White House. But the tide among lawmakers may be turning. U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who has proposed an initiative to strengthen U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel”s capital, said Congress should act “responsibly” on measures that could impact the peace process. For example, he said in a telephone interview, now is not the time to oppose aid to the Palestinians that was agreed to during the Wye accord negotiations last fall. When asked what other initiatives should be laid aside, Weiner said that it is like the pornography test: “We”ll know it when we see it.” For his part, Kaplan of AIPAC said before deciding its course of action, his group would look at each legislative initiative and determine whether it is “promoting the peace process or impeding it in some way.” Indicative of the challenges Barak will have in securing support for his vision of peace, activists say, was an exchange at a congressional hearing last week on Israel”s treatment at the United Nations. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-N.Y.) said that Israel should stop the peace process if a Palestinian-supported U.N. conference to criticize Israeli settlement activity convenes, which it did, in Geneva. Martin Indyk, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, politely cautioned Wexler that the Barak government, while opposed to the Geneva conference, had not taken such a hard line and asked him not to be “holier than the pope.” Barak planned to make a similar argument, in lighter terms, when he met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week to encourage support for his peace initiatives, his aides said. “The views of this new Israeli government are relatively well known so the bottom line is all of the organizations should really think about how not to be counterproductive to Israel and the American governments efforts to move the peace process forward,” said Michael Sonnenfeldt, chairman of the Policy Forum. But Barak”s ideological opponents in the Jewish community say they must continue their work. “If Arafat shows himself to be a demon by refusing to arrest and prosecute” terrorists who killed Americans, “it is not us demonizing him,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “He is a demon.””