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American Jewish Leaders Worry Violence Could Break out in Israel

Most American Jewish leaders say they fear the failure of the Camp David summit could lead to outbreaks of violence.

But those who opposed the talks in the first place are relieved to see them end without an agreement.

In an official statement, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee urged the Palestinians to “avoid unilateral actions that might lead to violence.”

The AIPAC statement added that it was “gravely disappointed” and blamed the failure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, told JTA, “Arafat has once again failed to demonstrate that he is a true partner for peace. He escalated the demands in the face of far-reaching Israeli concessions.”

But while disappointed, many leaders tried to put a positive spin on things. The American Jewish Congress issued a news release with the headline, “Camp David’s failure may convince both sides that compromise is necessary.”

Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, which have consistently backed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace policies, emphasized that the discussions may pave the way for future talks.

“The upside is that the taboos against even considering compromise are broken, and both sides have begun the difficult process of climbing down the rhetorical trees they have climbed up,” said Tom Smerling, director of IPF’s Washington Center.

He said Barak has disclosed his willingness to make certain concessions on Palestinian sovereignty in eastern Jerusalem, and Arafat has recognized that Israel will not go back to exact pre-1967 borders and that most Palestinian refugees will not be able to return.

“In one form or another, they’re going to have to come back and talk because they don’t have the option, there’s no place else to go,” Smerling said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which has also been a vocal advocate of Barak and closely monitored the summit at the site, described the peace talks’ failure as a “tragedy,” but did not expect it to be the end of the peace process.

“The question is will they come back before a renewal of tensions or will they allow tensions and violence to force them back?” he asked. “To get so close and now to walk away would be a disaster.”

Everyone interviewed expressed concern about potential outbreaks of violence following the summit failure.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his he had faxed a letter to President Clinton asking him to state forcefully that the United States will not tolerate Palestinian terrorism against Israel.

“Last week, he said he’s worried about violence if no agreement is reached,” said Klein, whose group strongly opposes Barak’s peace efforts, asserting he is conceding far too much. “He should have said he would not tolerate violence. It was clear Clinton and Albright wanted to frighten Israel into an agreement.”

However, Smerling of the IPF said the risk of violence “might have been higher following a success rather than an end of the talks,” because opponents of any agreement or compromise “would have been energized.”

American Jewish leaders are not expecting to see an end to tensions between American Jews who support Barak’s efforts and those, like ZOA, that oppose them and have lobbied against the U.S. government providing foreign aid to cement any Israel-Palestinian agreements.

Klein said he will continue to speak out against Barak’s proposed concessions, and those in the pro-peace camp said they will continue mobilizing grass-roots American Jewish and congressional support for the process.

Julius Berman, past chairman of the Conference of Presidents and the Orthodox Union, said Jewish discord won’t diminish.

“Now we have a new issue, and the issue is Barak’s credibility,” he said, referring to the prime minister’s apparent willingness to make broader concessions on Jerusalem than he had pledged during last year’s Israeli election campaign.

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