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Would U.S. Jews lobby for a peace deal?

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NEW YORK, July 17 (JTA) — If Palestinian and Israeli negotiators succeed in forging peace at Camp David, it’s all but certain that tens of billions of American tax dollars would be needed to underpin such an agreement.

And in cajoling the U.S. Congress to loosen the purse strings, no group would be more vital than the leading American pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

No one doubts that AIPAC would “be there” on behalf of a peace deal, despite deep reservations from some corners within the organization.

“There would be initial sticker shock — ‘I can’t believe they’re giving up this, I can’t believe they’re giving up that,’ ” said a Jewish official familiar with AIPAC.

“But most people would swallow hard, sit back and realize that if Barak, with the credibility as Israel’s greatest warrior, says this will enhance Israel’s long-term security, the community will respond and rally behind him.”

However, some now wonder — in light of a recent open letter critical of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak signed by several Jewish leaders affiliated with AIPAC — what degree of enthusiasm its lobbyists would demonstrate.

AIPAC, after all, mirrors American Jewry itself.

Its 463-member executive committee spans the political spectrum of Jewish groups and individuals, and, therefore, encompasses the wide range of American Jewish opinion on how best to achieve peace in the Middle East and guarantee security for the Jewish state.

With Barak so driven in his quest for peace, a number of U.S. Jewish groups and officials have expressed concern that Barak is prepared to breach several “red lines” drawn by previous Israeli leaders on such issues as the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, national borders and Jewish settlements.

Nowhere were these divisions so evident as in a series of recent newspaper ads.

One, spearheaded by the Zionist Organization of America, featured an open letter to Barak criticizing the prime minister for appearing to concede too much in peace negotiations.

The letter, signed by 30 leading American Jewish figures, was published throughout Israel, in The New York Times and in several U.S. Jewish papers.

Another full-page ad, which appeared in The New York Times on July 12, the first full day of the summit, and in Jewish papers, was sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, a group that promotes the peace process.

This open letter to Barak, which carried 384 signatures, stated that “the overwhelming majority of American Jews support this peace initiative.”

A third letter appeared in The Washington Post to welcome Barak to the Camp David summit. Sponsored by the 54-member Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it carried the names of only 36 members.

Several did not sign, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, because “they didn’t want to.”

AIPAC, a member of the Conference of Presidents, itself appeared as a signatory on the third letter, but AIPAC-affiliated individuals were also signatories to the first two dueling letters.

AIPAC’s skittishness over the issue was highlighted when it demanded the resignation of its executive committee chairman, Gerald Charnoff, for signing the ZOA-sponsored letter.

Charnoff was the most prominent of the eight current or past AIPAC committee members who signed the letter. He was, however, allowed to remain on the executive committee.

Charnoff’s link with AIPAC was not mentioned in the ZOA letter. But there was concern that officials in Washington and Jerusalem would connect the dots, tarnishing AIPAC’s reputation despite the fact that only a handful of its executive committee members had signed on.

More than two dozen members of AIPAC’s executive committee signed the IPF-sponsored letter supporting Barak’s efforts.

For their part, AIPAC officials insist the lobby — consistently ranked as one of the most influential on Capitol Hill — would lead the charge for a financial aid package to secure peace.

“AIPAC’s record in supporting the peace process is clear and unambiguous, and we are very proud of it,” AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker told JTA.

“We completely understand the magnitude and significance of what might be achieved at Camp David.”

Bricker declined to elaborate. Due to AIPAC’s strict press policy, several members of the executive committee declined to comment.

However, the ZOA letter did raise important questions about AIPAC: If there is internal unease with a Camp David deal that relinquishes more than expected, how would that unease affect the timing and style of AIPAC’s lobbying campaign?

Some observers think that support among AIPAC’s board — and intensified AIPAC activity on behalf of a financial aid package — would come only after the Israeli public gave its stamp of approval in a referendum, which has been promised by Barak.

Israeli rejection by referendum would render AIPAC’s lobbying moot.

AIPAC, since its creation in 1954, has been a forum for lively internal debate and instrumental in honing relations between Israel and the United States, say American Jewish officials familiar with its workings.

Critics have suggested that AIPAC was too closely allied with the right-wing Likud Party, now in opposition in Israel, and was lukewarm about the peace process unveiled at Oslo in 1993.

If Barak were to succeed with a peace agreement, it would inevitably fall to AIPAC and its allies to explain Barak’s vision to the 535 members of the U.S. Congress.

AIPAC, which has often been a driving force in securing U.S. foreign aid to Israel and others, would have to convince members of Congress, many of whom are wary of foreign aid expenditures, of the need for billions more in aid for Israeli security measures, Palestinian statehood and refugees.

For now, observers say, AIPAC’s professional staff is laying the groundwork for any peace deal-related lobbying, clarifying Israeli positions and making plain the need for financial aid.

After the deal, AIPAC would be expected to present a united, non- partisan front. Internal concerns would be expressed privately, or directly with the Israelis.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, said in an interview last week from Camp David that he senses widespread Jewish support for Barak initiatives and that if and when the time comes, “I expect there will be unilateral support for the financial aid we need” from AIPAC.

Still, reaching consensus within AIPAC might become a messy affair. Some predict the executive committee might experience mass resignations.

“AIPAC is a divided board,” said the ZOA’s Klein, who describes himself as one of the more active members of the AIPAC board.

“I would say a third to one-half of the activists are dismayed — that’s the word they use with me — with what Barak is ready to give away. I regularly hear things like ‘I’ve fought my whole life to strengthen Israel, and now I see everything I’ve done torn apart.’ “

Klein revealed last week that he was among a crowd of 100 American Jewish activists who met in New York, invited by a visiting group of Israelis, to discuss strategies for lobbying against the sort of deal Barak would likely make, including lobbying against U.S. financial aid.

While few these days deny the right of American Jews to express their opinions on Israel, some observers say that despite platitudes from American Jewry that the terms of peace “are up to Israelis to decide,” there are many convinced they know better than Barak what’s best for Israeli security.

So if there is a deal, one of the many tasks for Barak — who is said to be the most highly decorated soldier in Israel’s history — would be to sell the plan not only to the Israeli public, but to American Jewry as well.

They, too, need reassurance.

To date, this has been a failure of Barak’s administration, say some observers.

Israeli leaders, they say, traditionally tend to take American Jewry’s support for granted and have not done enough to inform and educate U.S. Jews about the peace process. If such steps were taken, they say, it could exert more influence on Washington.

“AIPAC will continue to explain the Israeli position forcefully and effectively,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

But Barak, he added, “will need to explain clearly to the American Jewish community why the peace process, and the peace agreement he is signing, is indispensable for the security of Israel, and why every other possibility is fraught with almost guaranteed disaster.”

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