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U.S. Jews revive divisions over peace

NEW YORK, Nov. 28 (JTA) – Reports of the peace camp’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Although weeks of Middle East violence stunned them into silence, self-doubt and soul-searching, those American Jews most out front in promoting the peace process are rediscovering their voices.

Groups like the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Americans for Peace Now are launching new campaigns to promote their vision of the way out of the current crisis.

In contrast to the view of many American – and Israeli – Jews that the peace process is dead and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is no longer a negotiating partner, these groups are focusing less on the Palestinians and more on what they believe Israel should be doing to bring the two sides together.

The Reform movement, for instance, is calling for dismantling Jewish settlements buried in the heart of Arab populations and reaching out to Israeli Arabs, some of whom erupted into violence against Israeli forces in the early days of the latest fighting.

By speaking out, the peace camp may wipe away the veneer of “unity” and “solidarity” that has enveloped the Jewish community since violence broke out two months ago.

It may also re-expose the deep communal fissures that emerged along the rocky road in search of peace.

Ever since the Oslo peace process began seven years ago, American Jews – like their Israeli brethren – have been at odds over what concessions, if any, should be made to the Palestinians.

Following the May 1999 election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, many Jews applauded Barak’s peace-seeking efforts, while others denounced him for a perceived willingness to achieve peace at all costs.

But since this new outbreak of violence erupted in late September, American Jewish backers of Barak have been generally muted as Diaspora Jewry rallied behind Israeli efforts to quell the insurrection.

Early on, peace advocates were wracked with anger, confusion and disillusionment. They say they were “forced to look in the mirror” and “ask themselves hard questions” about whether they had been wrong all along about talking peace with Arafat.

At the same time, their rivals on the other end of the political spectrum crowed, “I told you so.”

Even a group historically at the forefront of promoting the peace process, the American Jewish Congress, took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on Nov. 12 titled “It Takes a Big Organization to Admit it Was Wrong.”

The text of the ad itself was more nuanced, however, asking Arafat to prove that those who supported the peace process weren’t wrong.

“It’s not easy to recognize that a purpose or ideal in which you heavily invested so much time and energy and emotion may not be possible,” Phil Baum, executive director of the AJCongress, said in an interview.

“Who can give that up? I can’t give that up. I don’t want to say we were wrong. I want to be able to say that these events of the last seven weeks were a big mistake, an aberration, and that we were right all along.”

But of late, members of the peace camp has become newly emboldened, in part because they say hard-liners have failed to come up with a viable solution for ending the conflict.

While peace activists feel betrayed by Arafat and agree that there must be greater insistence that Arafat fulfill his commitments, they assert that he is still the man to deal with.

“It may take longer, it may be harder, but the notion that we can continue with the status quo and reject the idea of a negotiated settlement is exceedingly dangerous for the Jewish state,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC, which represents some 900 Reform congregations.

“I have no problem pointing the finger at Arafat. He is responsible for the violence, he is responsible for stopping it. But we still want a negotiated settlement.”

Yoffie and others have no regrets for gambling on Arafat’s good faith.

“There were always risks to the process,” said Michael Sonnenfeldt, chairman of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that was formed to promote the peace policies of the Labor government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli extremist opposed to the peace process.

“I think those risks were well-taken and there’s disappointment that they didn’t come to fruition. I have no reason to second-guess the calculations.”

He predicted that a current survey of American Jews, if taken, would find “a lot of disappointment and some confusion,” but “I still think there’d be a basic and deep support for a diplomatic solution, if it can be achieved.”

While the peace activists support Israel’s right to defend itself in the current crisis, they also encourage Israeli introspection over what additional steps the Jewish state can take to promote peace.

From the peace camp perspective, settlements are the primary “barrier” now to a peace accord. Several have been targeted of late by Palestinian terrorists, earning quick Israeli retaliation.

“It’s not simply a question of let’s give up more and more, but something Israel can do in its own best self-interests toward ending the cycle of death and violence,” said Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director for Americans for Peace Now.

For its part, the UAHC campaign, conceived as a three-year project, intends to recreate a “glimmer of hope” for peace, said project director Esther Lederman.

It will be unveiled within the next couple of weeks, and strive to atone for “tactical errors” after Oslo by pro-peace activists, who failed to sufficiently inform their constituency about the need for peace and the challenges blocking the way, Lederman said.

The project will “educate and mobilize” Reform Jews specifically, and American Jews generally, about the core issues of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. It aims, in part, to explain “where the Palestinian anger comes from,” said Lederman, as well as the “social justice” deprived Israel’s Arabs.

“I think it’s possible to talk about the need for negotiations and a negotiated settlement at the same time that you condemn the violence and the methods that are being used,” said Lederman.

Other Jewish leaders were less than enthusiastic about the initiatives by the UAHC and Americans for Peace Now.

“I do agree that there is no alternative to peace in the long term,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group that includes the UAHC and Peace Now.

“But the question is under what terms and what road will lead to it, and a precondition is to have a real partner for peace who will live up to his commitments. The evidence now would appear to be that, unfortunately, Israel does not have a partner there.”

Hoenlein hinted that any new initiatives may be premature while the death toll continues to mount on both sides: “I think the events are going to dictate what all of us will do. Facts on the ground are changing so quickly, that what we may have suggested yesterday may not be relevant tomorrow,” he said.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, was more blunt.

“Negotiation has unfortunately become a euphemism for more one- sided concessions in return for broken promises by Arafat’s terroristic regime,” Klein said.

“It is disturbing that the Reform movement, in its naivete, has ignored seven years of the Palestinian Authority’s promotion of hatred, violence and murder against Jews throughout their culture, and have ignored the P.A. promotion that all of Israel is Palestine.”

Yoffie acknowledges that he underestimated the impact that incitement of hatred for Israel and Jews – a steady drumbeat in Palestinian schools, mosques, media and official pronouncements – has had on the Palestinian public.

Indeed, he said, it must be on the agenda of any future peace talks – but not necessarily a sticking point.

Holding out for a democratic transition in the Palestinian Authority, a sea change in mentality among Palestinians or a new generation of Palestinian leaders may be a recipe for prolonging the conflict further, Yoffie said, adding that a wait would mean the shedding of more Jewish and Arab blood.

As for what happens to unity and solidarity as these public campaigns for peace initiatives move forward, the terms themselves seem subjective.

There are those in the community who believe that at this time, American Jews must be in lock-step support of Israeli actions. Veering from this path may be seen as nothing short of betrayal.

“There’ve always been differences of opinion, but at this time we ought to not be proposing or imposing our views on the Israeli government,” said Hoenlein.

“We should do our part, which is addressing the distortions in the media, strengthening Israel’s position in Washington and educating the American public about the issues – like Jerusalem and Israel’s military restraint – to create a context for them to understand what’s happening.”

Lederman doesn’t see it that way.

“I think it’s OK to say you stand with Israel and say you believe in her right to exist and flourish, and still say you have problems with what’s occurring with some of Israel’s policies,” she said. “What’s key is how that dissatisfaction is addressed. There are respectful ways of doing it and disrespectful ways of doing it.”

In fact, even among Reform Jews, there is not likely to be unanimity on the issue.

In canvassing UAHC board members and regional conventions, Lederman said, “the majority think it’s a good idea” to forge ahead with proposals for peace. But some, she conceded, were far more skeptical.

“There were voices of concern, like ‘Sure we want peace, but how?’ It’s a more daunting task than it was three months ago.”

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