Jewish Groups Want More Details Before Deciding on Saudi Proposal

With attention focused on the Saudi Arabian peace initiative, American Jewish groups are trying to determine if it’s in Israel’s best interest — and are trying to keep international expectations in check.

Most Jewish groups are saying they need more details before determining whether Crown Prince Abdullah’s outline is a window of opportunity for the peace process or a nonstarter. Whatever their viewpoint, the groups say it’s impossible for them to lobby actively until they know more.

Those specifics won’t come out before an Arab League summit in Beirut in late March — and Saudi Arabia has threatened not to present its plan at the summit unless Israel allows Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to attend the meeting.

Until then, Jewish groups are acting cautiously — and sending a message to the Bush administration to take its time as well before the administration makes a move on the issue.

“We are urging the administration to go slow and carefully assess the details,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

The administration is under growing pressure to back the Saudi proposal. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is calling on Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to meet in Sharm el-Sheik to discuss the Saudi proposal. Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to hear a great deal about the plan when he travels to the Middle East later this week.

A week loaded with casualties makes the prospects of any peace initiative all the more enticing — or, some would say, more implausible.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah has not even formally presented a plan, instead telling New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that he had intended to make such a proposal — but then shelved it because of Israeli policy.

That hasn’t stopped world leaders and media from hailing the initiative as a window of opportunity for Mideast peace, perhaps because the alternatives right now are so few. But American Jewish leaders believe there is not enough tangible information about the initiative for the Bush administration to decide how to proceed, or for their groups to determine their positions.

“It’s hard to lobby for something that doesn’t really exist on paper,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, which praises the idea that a leading Arab state supports the peace process.

In principle, the initiative calls for normalized relations between Israel and the Arab world, provided that Israel returns to the borders it had before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Some see that idea as a positive step toward peace from one of the most influential Arab states, and as a basis for discussion. Others see it as a step backward from long-standing U.N. Security Council resolutions, which call for Israel to withdraw to secure and recognized borders, but not necessarily for complete withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.

In addition, the initiative is mum on several key issues, including the “right of return” that Palestinian refugees demand to their former homes inside Israel.

“A lot of Jewish groups have a wait-and-see attitude until the prince gets in front of the Arab League,” said an official with a Jewish organization. “There’s not much that can be done until we see what the prince articulates.”

Some Jewish groups are sending editorials and background information to their memberships, informing them of the complex issues involved in the initiative. Specifically, they are highlighting the perceived faults in the proposal, and noting what issues people should look for if a real plan is ever unveiled.

In addition, they are expressing wariness about Saudi Arabia’s motives. Historically, Saudi Arabia has hindered the peace process more than helped it, and many Jewish leaders openly question whether the Saudis’ real goal now is to redeem the country’s image in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which were carried out primarily by Saudi citizens. Some even speculate that the Saudis want to push Israel into a corner by offering a peace deal it can’t accept, thus painting the Jewish state as obstructionist.

But other Jewish groups say that, whatever Saudi Arabia’s motives, the initiative could be a step in the right direction.

“There’s no reason to stop” the proposal’s momentum, said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Let’s engage the Saudis and see what role they are going to take.”

Stephen Cohen, national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum, said the details are not as important as the overall message, which is that Arab states are seeking an end to the conflict that includes recognition of Israel.

“It’s defining the Arab vision of peace, not pre-empting the negotiating process,” he said.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has not yet endorsed a strategy. They held a conference call last week with Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Sharon.

Until Israel takes a clear position on the Saudi initiative, it’s hard for the American Jewish community to mount a strong push either for or against the plan, one Jewish leader said.

“All we need is one definitive statement from the prime minister,” the official said. “The U.S. Jewish community cannot be out in front on this because, in the end, we are not the Israeli government, we are not the Israeli electorate.”

Morton Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, said he is starting to contact Israeli ministers, explaining why he believes the Saudi initiative would put Israel in a worse position than do

United Nations resolutions.

Israeli officials have issued differing opinions on the proposal. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has praised it, while Sharon has said that a retreat to the borders would endanger the country’s security.

Considering the Bush administration’s measured reception to the initiative, Jewish groups are making their opinions known subtly, hoping the White House will not take a definitive position until the plan is fleshed out.

“There are always those who are going to jump ahead and say this is the best thing since sliced bread and others who will dismiss it out of hand,” said the AJCommittee’s Harris. “The prudent approach is to take a more nuanced middle course.”

Cohen said the American Jewish community and Israel should take the Saudis at their word and embrace the initiative — but he realizes that people are afraid to do so.

“People are afraid of a yes. They don’t want to have their hopes dashed again; they’ve had them dashed once before,” he said, referring to the disappointment of the 2000 Camp David talks.

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