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Jewish Groups Make Their Case Ahead of Bush Speech on Mideast

The apparent confusion within the Bush administration over the White House’s next step in Middle East peacemaking is breeding consternation among American Jewish groups.

With conflicting messages emerging from various parts of the administration, groups were waiting in anticipation of a presidential speech that could include a call for an interim Palestinian state.

Until the administration plan is revealed and President Bush lays out specific proposals, Jewish groups have little to go on. Still, as Israel and Arab states lend the president their advice, American Jewish groups also are working hard to stress certain points they consider crucial.

Yet those points span the ideological spectrum of American Jewry, with some warning the administration not to reward Palestinian terrorism and others saying the Palestinians must be offered diplomatic gains as an inducement to stop attacking Israel.

Bush was likely to deliver his speech this week, but a White House spokesman said only that he expected “something in the very near future.”

Whatever vision Bush lays out, it must be based on performance benchmarks – – not a strict timeline — according to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“It’s all contingent on improvements on the security front,” he said.

Palestinian officials are demanding a timeline to the establishment of a Palestinian state, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says progress should depend on performance, not a deadline.

There also is concern that a provisional state could be seen as a reward for terrorism, Hoenlein added. That position won backing recently from several prominent opinion shapers, including New York Times columnist William Safire.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee urged President Bush not to rush to call for the creation of a Palestinian state. The group urged the president to reject the advice of those “pressing him to endorse a `timeline’ or an `interim state’ that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state before the Palestinian leadership rejects terrorism.”

The pro-Israel lobby is “not opposed to a Palestinian state,” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Needler said, but believes one created now under Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would become a “state sponsor of terror.”

An administration official said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent comments about a provisional Palestinian state was sparking anxiety among Jewish groups.

Last week, Powell told the London-based, Arabic-language Al-Hayat newspaper that it “might be necessary to set up a temporary state as a transitional step.”

When White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked whether Bush supported such a move, he sidestepped the question.

“The president has been receiving advice from any number of people, and many of these people give him multiple pieces of advice about the Middle East,” Fleischer said.

The next day, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the San Jose Mercury News that Bush is moving toward establishing a Palestinian state. However, she added, it would not be built around the Palestinian Authority, which she said is “corrupt” and “cavorts with terror.”

Sharon said conditions are not ripe for the creation of even a provisional Palestinian state. Sharon’s remarks at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting followed media reports that he was open to the idea.

Sharon, who in the past has voiced support for an eventual Palestinian state, repeatedly has stated that the Palestinian Authority must institute internal reforms and halt attacks against Israel before there can be advances on the diplomatic front.

More liberal American Jewish groups say they are not anxious about Bush’s announcement but support the interim state idea, and hope the president’s announcement will include a major U.S. plan.

An interim state is a good way to start because you cannot have negotiations without some form of statehood on the table, said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy at the Israel Policy Forum.

“Maybe the best we can hope for is incrementalism,” he said.

A declaration of a Palestinian state in the short term could lead to a resumption of security cooperation and would help to move the diplomatic process along, said Lewis Roth, associate executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

When there are too many preconditions, “you never get to the point of meaningful negotiations,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, the support for Israel continues, and some indicators suggest that U.S. lawmakers might be willing to take a harder line on Palestinian statehood.

“I am writing to express my serious concern about recent statements made by Secretary of State Colin Powell indicating your administration’s support for the formation of a Palestinian state on an expedited time line, with Yasser Arafat at its helm, before final status issues have been negotiated,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) wrote to Bush last week. “United States support for a Palestinian state at this time would have the effect of rewarding the terrorism and violence which the Palestinian Authority continues to perpetrate against Israel.”

Last week, the Zionist Organization of America, a hawkish group, lobbied U.S. officials to stop pressuring Israel, to cut diplomatic relations with Arafat, to end all U.S. aid to the Palestinians and to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

Senators and representatives endorsed at least parts of ZOA’s agenda, and some congressmen said they sensed potential for a stricter stance from Congress on some issues.

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