Jewish groups square off on envoy appointment

WASHINGTON, April 25 (JTA) – In an unusual move, the Reform and Conservative movements are backing President Bush’s probable choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel, who has been criticized by some hawkish Jewish organizations.

The movements’ rabbinical and congregational arms, which rarely speak out on political appointments, are sending a joint letter to Bush, asking him to disregard an advertising campaign against Daniel Kurtzer spearheaded by the Zionist Organization of America.

“We want to make it clear to the president that he shouldn’t operate on the assumption that this guy is opposed by the majority of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “This is not the case.”

Kurtzer, the current ambassador to Egypt, has not been officially named to the Tel Aviv post, but his selection is seen as all but certain in the diplomatic community. He is expected to take office during the summer, replacing current Ambassador Martin Indyk.

The ZOA has led an advertising campaign in Jewish newspapers, accusing Kurtzer of pressuring Israel to agree to one-sided concessions and of association with the “failed Oslo peace process.”

“He’s the wrong person for the wrong job at the wrong time,” ZOA National President Morton Klein said. “America should be sending an ambassador to Israel that is comfortable with the Israeli administration’s policies.”

The ZOA ads feature a quote from former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: “Kurtzer frequently pressured Israel to make one-sided concessions to the Arabs; he constantly blamed Israel for the absence of Mideast peace, and paid little or no attention to the fact that the Palestinians were carrying out terrorist attacks and openly calling for the destruction of Israel.”

The ZOA ads are co-sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans of USA, the Center for Security Policy, the National Council of Young Israel and the American Sephardi Foundation. In addition, Klein has sent a letter to Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasizing his opposition to Kurtzer.

But in the latest letter to Bush, the UAHC, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism say they believe Kurtzer is fit for the Tel Aviv post.

“Our movements have worked with Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer over the years and greatly respect him,” the organizations wrote. “He has been a committed servant of the U.S. government over the years and has been a great friend to Israel.”

The letter acknowledges the respect for Kurtzer among Arabs, Israelis and American officials.

The Reform and Conservative movements made clear in the letter that their comments are not an official endorsement. However, Yoffie said he felt it was important to speak out after Kurtzer had been “vilified” by parts of the Jewish community.

“It’s unusual, but the particularly vicious and public quality of these attacks seemed to justify it,” Yoffie said.

Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew, is a longtime U.S. diplomat who served as a member of the peace team during the Clinton and elder Bush administrations. A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Kurtzer was one of the architects of American contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the late 1980s, and has developed strong relationships with the Arab world during his stint in Egypt.

He also is believed to be one of the authors of Secretary of State James Baker’s famous 1989 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in which Baker called on Israel to move past the “unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel” that includes Gaza and the West Bank.

In the current debate over Kurtzer’s appointments, both sides claim to represent the viewpoint of most American Jews.

“When Jews hear about what Daniel Kurtzer’s views are, they are very uncomfortable with it,” Klein said.

“Such criticism is not shared by the mainstream Jewish community,” answer the Reform and Conservative leaders, noting that their movements represent 85 percent of affiliated American Jews.

The movements did not seek the support of the Orthodox movement before drafting the letter. Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the organization does not support or oppose political nominations.

Diament said the Orthodox community is split on Kurtzer. The National Council of Young Israel, one of the ZOA advertising campaign’s sponsors, is an association of Orthodox synagogues.

Due to an Egyptian holiday, Kurtzer was unavailable for comment in Cairo. State Department officials said they have no comment on the issue.

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