Pro-israel Demonstrators Sent Mixed Messages to Bush Team

One message from this week’s rally at the Capitol was clear — solidarity with the State of Israel and its people.

Much less clear was the message to the Bush administration.

Signs, speakers and more than 100,000 demonstrators touted support for the U.S. war on terrorism.

But few expressed support for Secretary of State Colin Powell’s current mission in the Middle East, his meetings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Bush administration’s call for Israel to end its military incursions into the West Bank.

A handful of U.S. senators and non-Jewish political leaders mentioned the Powell mission. American Jewish and Israeli leaders skirted it.

But while the Jewish leadership tried to stick to positive tones, a State Department official said the lasting image of the rally will be the negative response to the Bush administration’s sole representative, who spoke from the administration’s playbook.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense who is considered one of Israel’s staunchest advocates in the administration, was drowned out by chants of “Down with Arafat” and at times booed when he spoke of an eventual Palestinian state and the death of innocent Palestinians.

“The fact that Paul Wolfowitz is booed for talking about the sufferings of innocent Palestinians in many ways reinforces the deep divide between many people in government — even those sympathetic to Israel — and the pro-Israel community,” said a State Department official.

But the real question is what impact, if any, the rally will have on administration policy.

The Bush administration is engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to walk a fine line between supporting Israel’s position that its offensive in the territories is part of the U.S. global war on terrorism and asking Israel to withdraw its forces and return to political negotiations with the Palestinians.

Within the administration, the response appears mixed.

One State Department official said he did not think the Powell team was about to change course because of the rally.

“Given his immersion in this problem,” the official said of Powell, “I am not sure he is worrying about what tens of thousands of people gathering on a spring day are saying.”

Others in the administration, however, said policy may not change, but the numbers that turned out can’t be ignored.

“This is not going to change policy because policy is not based on what’s popular,” said a Bush administration official.

But he added, “We hear so much from Jewish leaders, to see that many Jews turn out for this will just speak volumes.”

When deciding to go ahead with the rally, members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations differed over what the message should be.

The main focus was to send a strong message to the Israeli and American public that American Jews support Israel.

But the rally was also seen as a golden opportunity to send a message about where Jewish Americans wanted U.S. foreign policy in the region to head.

“Doing an event like this while a decision-making process is going on is key to the fact that the event is going to effect policy,” said one American Jewish official.

He and others also noted the wide coverage the event received in the mainstream media.

Organizers tried to find a cohesive message that both dovish and hawkish groups could rally behind.

And while the official mantra of the rally promoted support for the State of Israel and its people — but not explicitly the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unity government — placards and speeches at times evoked contradictory messages.

Much of the disagreement was about the U.S. role, and whether Powell should be pressuring Israel to withdraw from the portions of the West Bank and Gaza it went into or whether Israel should be free to complete its mission to rout out the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure.

Another major stumbling point is whether Arafat is the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people who should meet with U.S. officials, or a terrorist who is irrelevant to the political process.

When speakers delved into those issues, the mass of the crowd showed their predilections.

While Wolfowitz was booed, other speakers received huge ovations when they called Arafat a terrorist and said Israel should be allowed to complete its mission.

“Yasser Arafat is the quintessential terrorist,” former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “Arafat pursues a goal of policide, the destruction of a state, by employing the means of suicide, suicide and mass terror.”

That dichotomy highlights growing fear among some in the American Jewish community that continued U.S. intervention in the Middle East will lead to more pressure for concessions by Israel and more Israeli victims of terrorism.

Event organizers tried to stay out of the dispute and promote a positive message, but individual Jewish organizations — and rally participants — did not.

“If Bush doesn’t get the message to stop pressuring Israel, we will have lost a great opportunity with this rally,” said Morton Klein, national president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America. “He will misinterpret that his actions are tolerated, when in fact they are not.”

The Israel Policy Forum, a group that had close ties with the Clinton administration and strongly supports U.S. engagement in the region, took out a full page advertisement in the Washington Post on the morning of the rally.

In addition to supporting Israel and its right to defend itself, the ad also supported President Bush’s “initiative to end violence in the Middle East and bring the parties back to the negotiating table.”

“In the past, some pro-Israel rallies have been dominated by voices of opposition to what the Bush administration is trying to do, and they wanted to make sure that was not the way this rally was perceived,” said Jonathan Jacoby, IPF’s founding executive director.

He said he was glad, in retrospect, that the ad was placed because it worked to counterbalance the lasting image of the treatment of Wolfowitz.

Public officials are split on whether their colleagues listen to the messages of large gatherings.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who spoke at the rally, told JTA that officials have to take public sentiment into account when making policy.

“When people have a demonstration or privately make a stand, I’d always pay attention it,” Giuliani said. “It makes me think about the direction of my policies.”

In fact, it may be too early to tell.

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee who was involved in organizing the 1987 rally for Soviet Jewry, said it was much easier to gauge results after that gathering, simply by counting the number of emigrants allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

“We are dealing with something far more complex, multidimensional and does not lead itself to easy measurements,” he said.

As for the response to Wolfowitz, some are downplaying its significance.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he believed the booing was limited and was predominantly a knee-jerk reaction to hearing the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian state.”

“Frankly, it was not carefully crafted to avoid that,” Hoenlein said of Wolfowitz’s speech. “People have to understand how to speak at a rally. That address at a different forum would have had a very different reaction.”

Others speculated that people did not understand the comment or even hear it, and were simply booing because others were.

But Morris Amitay, a former head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, who has served in the State Department, said that although Wolfowitz is hawkish in support for Israel, he had a responsibility to deliver the administration line.

“He is now a representative of the U.S. government,” Amitay said. “You pay lip service to the sufferings of Palestinians, which has become part of the psychological lexicon.”

While no one will know what its lasting impact will be, the message was sent.

“If, in the end, there were people who were unhappy with the administration,” Harris said, “then it was important for the administration to hear it.”

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