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News Analysis: Letter Criticizing Barak Could Affect Peace Deal

An open letter by 30 American Jewish leaders criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for his peace negotiations with the Palestinians has sparked immediate fallout for at least one signator, but it is not yet clear what impact — if any — it will have on policy-makers in Jerusalem or Washington.

Some signatories describe the letter as an attempt to “promote dialogue” between Barak — who is viewed as keeping his negotiation strategy close to the vest — and concerned Jewish leaders.

Critics, though, suspect the letter aims to derail the peace process. Even if it doesn’t have any direct effect in Jerusalem, they say, it could discourage U.S. lawmakers from bankrolling the billions of dollars in aid that would be needed to underwrite any final agreement.

The letter to Barak was first published June 23 as a full-page advertisement in two Israeli papers, The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz.

It is also slated to appear soon in The New York Times, a Russian-language daily in Israel and 15 major American Jewish papers, according to Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who spearheaded the effort.

The letter reiterates concerns recently expressed by the widely respected Israeli Cabinet member, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, that Barak is “offering even more one-sided concessions to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.”

The letter was signed by eight past or present figures affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby that states in its constitution its loyalty to any Israeli government, regardless of its political orientation.

One of the AIPAC signators, Gerald Charnoff, who was identified in the ad as an “officer of major national Jewish organizations,” was forced to resign this week as chairman of AIPAC’s executive committee.

But he will remain a member of both the executive committee, the group’s policy-making body, and AIPAC’s national board of directors, said AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker, who emphatically distanced AIPAC from the letter.

A non-AIPAC related signator, Julius Berman, said he signed the letter as a “wake-up call, a plea” to Barak to heed the concerns of leaders who consider themselves a centrist constituency.

“I’ve never been one to say, `Never, not one inch of land,” for peace, said Berman, a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“But what’s happening here, little by little, as Barak makes decisions and keeps quiet about what his `red lines’ are, there’s a nervousness that he has no red lines,” said Berman, also a former president of the Orthodox Union.

“If a man like Sharansky has a fear of what Barak is prepared to give up for peace, and verbalizes that fear to the world, and it goes unanswered, that in and of itself undermines the faith many of us have in Barak.”

While the signatories included a wide range of Jewish figures, it was the inclusion of the affiliates of AIPAC that has created the greatest stir.

AIPAC, which is charged by the entire organized Jewish community to take the lead on lobbying on behalf of Israel, has an executive committee that includes 463 members spanning the political spectrum.

Some say the names of Charnoff and others gave the impression that AIPAC supported the letter, which had AIPAC officials trying frantically to minimize any damage.

“This is not our letter. We do not support it and we have not encouraged any of our members to sign it,” said Bricker.

Without addressing the substance of the letter, Bricker said, “It is up to the people of Israel to decide whether or not they will support a peace deal with the Palestinians. It is their decision and their decision alone.”

How enthusiastically the U.S. Congress will support the final decision is another matter.

According to Steven Rosen, director of foreign policy issues at AIPAC, any deal between Israel and the Palestinians is going to have to include American assistance “on an unprecedented scale.”

Much of that aid — which could amount to billions of dollars — would not go to Israel, but rather to the Palestinians to help create a Palestinian state and to help solve the Palestinian refugee problem, Rosen told a gathering of the American Jewish Press Association last week in Washington.

AIPAC, which would be expected to lead the charge for a special package, just as it does for the annual foreign aid bill, already faces a difficult climate for aid on Capitol Hill, Rosen said.

Members of Congress, who already might not be inclined to support a special aid package, could point to the letter to Barak as justification for not supporting an eventual deal, say analysts.

And that is another debate that Klein, in organizing this letter, clearly seeks to influence.

“This ad complains that Barak has abandoned the principle of reciprocity, meaning that Arafat must fulfill his commitments,” said Klein, asserting that Arafat, for example, has done nothing to prevent or fight terrorism or to curb official anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda.

“We’re trying to send a message to Congress and to the administration to pressure Arafat to honor his commitments to Oslo, and to stop pressuring Israel to make one-sided concessions to Arafat.

“If Arafat continues to promote pro-terror, anti-peace policies, he does not deserve, nor should he receive, any American tax dollars,” Klein said in an interview from Israel.

Critics say this line of reasoning could in fact be a backdoor attempt to undermine the entire peace process.

Any peace deal could only work with aid to the Palestinians as well as to Israel, said Thomas Smerling, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, which works to promote the peace process.

If anything, the timing of this letter — plus the implicit death threats from Israeli settlers, lobbying in Washington by opposition Knesset members and terrorist threats by Hamas — indicates Israel and the Palestinians may be on the verge of a major agreement, Smerling said.

“We’ve seen this movie before, and if a summit is convened, we’ll start to see these reruns daily,” he said, referring to a possible upcoming Washington summit.

“Every time the parties get close to an agreement and peace threatens to break out, the critics of the process on both sides escalate their efforts to derail the process,” he said.

While some worry whether AIPAC will be compromised in its ability to successfully lobby for an aid package, Bricker said that when it comes time to financially support the deal, “Congress will be looking to the government in Israel and mainstream American Jewish organization like AIPAC” to know where the Jewish community stands.

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