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American Jews applaud intensified U.S. peace efforts

WASHINGTON, May 22 (JTA) — American Jewish leaders are supportive of intensified U.S. efforts to end Mideast violence — as long as the Bush administration does not pressure Israel to freeze all settlement building.

Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday endorsed the report by a five-man international committee, led by former Sen. George Mitchell, that investigated the past eight months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Powell also named William Burns, the ambassador to Jordan and designated assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, as a special assistant to try to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority toward a cease-fire.

“All this did was surface the American involvement in trying to calm the situation and trying to kick start the discussions,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Most Jewish leaders concur, viewing Powell’s words as a step in the right direction and in keeping with the Bush administration’s stated goal of facilitating, rather than directing, any peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States is expected to be more visible in coming weeks and months — but not necessarily more proactive.

The Jewish community’s chief concern is that the United States will add its muscle to international pressure to freeze all expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Mitchell report calls for a complete settlement freeze, including expansion that Israel says is needed to accommodate existing settlements’ “natural growth.”

Powell said Monday that he supports a settlement freeze, but did not directly tackle the natural growth argument.

“What I want to see is what possibilities exist to bridge the very, very sharp differences and disagreements that exist between the two sides with respect to expansion within existing settlements,” Powell said. “This is a contentious one, and I want to be in the position to see if I can — if my team and I can find ways to bridge the very, very serious differences that now exist.”

Last week, Foxman warned the Mitchell Commission against appearing to tie an end to Palestinian violence to an Israeli settlement freeze. The Palestinians are demanding precisely such an interpretation.

However, after both Mitchell and Powell emphasized Monday that the first step must be an unconditional end to violence, Foxman supported the commission report.

“Settlements have always been policy that American governments have been opposed to,” Foxman said.

Other Jewish organizations, however, have said they are concerned that media reports and Palestinian Authority rhetoric is shifting opinion, making people believe that settlement development is the cause of the violence. American calls for a settlement freeze only exacerbate that fear, they warn.

“The violence will end immediately if Arafat and the P.A. want it to end,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “This is a time for the U.S. to stand clearly with Israel as it confronts this serious challenge. We cannot resort to a situation whereby Arafat’s refusal to take the necessary steps results in the onus placed on Israel to make yet further concessions.”

Dore Gold, a foreign affairs adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York on Tuesday that presenting a settlement freeze as a confidence-building measure after violence ends would signal Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that violence pays.

“A settlement freeze is an attempt to gain through violence what Arafat was unable to achieve through the Oslo peace process,” Gold told the Conference of Presidents.

Americans for Peace Now came out in support of the Mitchell report Monday, including the call for a settlement freeze. APN and its Israeli partner, Peace Now, earlier this week criticized what they call 15 new settlements built in the West Bank since Sharon’s election in February.

“This new explosion of settlement growth exacerbates an already tense situation on the ground,” said Mark Rosenblum, APN founder and policy director.

On Tuesday, however, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — who must approve all settlement construction — told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that absolutely no new settlement construction has gone on under the Sharon government.

(JTA Staff Writer Michael J. Jordan in New York contributed to this report.)

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