Would Bush Efforts to Revive Negotiations Send Wrong Signal?

Many American Jews were caught by surprise earlier this month by reports that President Bush would unveil a game plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that includes the creation of a Palestinian state.

While a notion of a Palestinian state as a final outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not a new concept — and at least until the past year of violence had vast support among American Jews and Israelis — there is widespread concern about the timing of such an initiative.

Many in the Jewish community are concerned that Israel will be pushed to make concessions that harm its security as the price for Arab support for the U.S.-led battle against terrorist Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida network.

Some also worry that any peace plan proposed by the Bush administration now would reward the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat, for the last year of Palestinian violence.

Much is still unknown about the contents — and timing — of the administration’s expected initiative.

Sources say either Bush or Secretary of State Colin Powell is likely to deliver a speech outlining a new Middle East initiative in the next couple of months.

Jewish leaders in contact with the Bush administration have been told the speech will not be given at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly next month, as originally anticipated.

As for its content, there is debate about whether the initiative will include new ideas, a revival of many of the ideas about final-status issues on Jerusalem and refugees that the Palestinians failed to approve at Camp David last summer or just a new burst of energy for a timetable laid out by former Sen. George Mitchell and CIA Director George Tenet to get back to the negotiating table.

Palestinians leaders have been comparing this initiative to one presented by President Clinton in his last days of office, outlining a detailed plan for Middle East peace.

But a senior official with a leading Jewish organizations said he has been told there will be no details on final-status issues.

“I’m willing to wager we are going to be right,” the official said.

The official said his organization had been aware of the speech for two months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept, 11, and while his group was initially supportive, the climate of the last month has changed their view.

“Now we are talking about a speech that is very different,” the official said. “It’s going to be playing to different audiences.”

For their part, Israeli officials say they have been told there is no final draft of the plan and have no sense of the timing of when it will be presented. They have been assured, however, they said, that there will be no surprises.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reportedly is considering coming to Washington to prepare for a new initiative.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is downplaying the significance of a possible address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also hinted where it might be going.

“We are constantly evaluating how we can best push the process of Middle East peace forward,” Rice said, speaking on Al Jazeera television Monday, in an effort to reach a wide Arab audience.

“I wouldn’t put any timeline on what the United States might do next,” she said. We really do believe right now that our best strategy is to work with the parties to get into the Mitchell process,” referring to a commission led by former Sen. George Mitchell that recommended an immediate end to violence, a settlement freeze in the West Bank and a resumption of negotiations.

Prior to Sept. 11, the administration had kept a low-profile even as the Israeli-Palestinian violence had intensified and efforts to institute a cease-fire had failed.

Administration officials say they had been planning a new push all along, but even if true the perception is that it is being pushed now to appease Arab states involved in the war on terrorism.

“The potential danger is that it would be understood in the Arab world as America yielding to pressures of the moment to try and push Israel farther than it can safely go,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

Harris, who met with Rice and other administration officials last week, said he urged great caution in proceeding down this path, and said he felt that administration officials were cognizant that they were dealing with a “hot potato.”

Already, there have been signs that the United States is courting the Palestinians as reward for its support for the war on terrorism.

The idea of a meeting between Bush and Arafat — which Bush had studiously avoided until now — has surfaced again in recent weeks. At the same time, administration officials have gone on Al Jazeera television, emphasizing Palestinian efforts to curb violence against the Israelis.

Jewish organizations, for their part, are walking a tight rope, trying to get their message across, while still showing support for the overall coalition against terrorism.

Jewish groups fear outward criticism of the Bush administration would only hurt themselves, and that they need leverage to push for inclusion of Hamas, Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli groups in later phases of the war on terrorism.

Julius Berman, a past president of the Orthodox Union and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish groups should not rally against the concept of a new peace initiative, because they will be unsuccessful and lose a chance to shape the context.

“They need to drive into the skid and take control,” Berman said. “They have to focus on the nuances.”

At the same time, members of Congress are also expressing concern about a new initiative.

“It is my view that the United States need not bend on key policy principles — and our steadfast support of Israel, and the proposition that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians should be decided between the parties, are two of those key principles — to accommodate requests from particular governments,” Gilman said.

There is no absolute consensus on whether a U.S. push for peace at this time is good for Israel.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, urged Jewish groups to speak with one voice. He said the umbrella group is working to educate the White House about the ramifications of instituting a new peace proposal.

“Our concern is that we are going to look again for short-term initiatives that could cause long-term problems.”

But others see a Bush initiative as an opportunity for Israel to move closer to peace.

Lewis Roth, associate executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said the fact that this initiative was being planned before Sept. 11 is a sign that the Bush administration’s motives are sincere.

“Israel stands to benefit from the global war on terrorism,” Roth said. “It is not being asked to do anything that won’t contribute to its long-term security.”

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