Jewish Leaders Thank Rice, but Show That They’re Still Skeptical

American Jewish leaders may appreciate the Bush administration’s efforts to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace, but some are skeptical about the “road map” peace plan and, especially, the Palestinians’ commitment to it.

They made those concerns known to Condoleezza Rice, the White House’s national security adviser, when she met with about 30 Jewish leaders Wednesday to discuss progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

The meeting was one of a series that National Security Council officials held Wednesday with close to 150 people interested in the Middle East, such as think-tank advisers and neoconservatives.

Most of the questions from Jewish leaders began with expressions of respect for the time and effort the White House has put into peacemaking lately, according to participants at the closed-door meeting. But several speakers voiced concern with the Palestinians’ willingness or ability to follow through on parts of the peace plan, such as their pledge to dismantle terrorist groups, said the participants, all of whom asked not to be identified.

“This is still a very difficult moment, and there’s still a lot of concern about whether the Palestinians are serious,” one participant told JTA.

Of note, some participants said, was the fact that none of the Jewish leaders praised the road map itself.

Seated with Elliott Abrams, Rice’s Middle East director, and Tevi Troy, the new White House liaison to the Jewish community, Rice outlined the messages she had given the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority on her visit to the region last weekend.

To the Palestinians, she emphasized that it is time to get serious about dismantling terrorist groups and laying the groundwork for real change, Rice told the Jewish leaders. She also emphasized the need for one law and one authority in the Palestinian areas.

She urged Israel to give the peace process some time and allow P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to work toward his goals.

The best way to marginalize P.A. President Yasser Arafat, Rice told Israel, was to help Abbas deliver things for the Palestinian people that Arafat never could.

“We don’t want Abu Mazen to take on Hamas and lose,” Rice reportedly said, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. She called both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “courageous” for taking a chance on peace.

Asked about how administration officials could be sure the Palestinians want democracy, Rice compared today’s Middle East to Europe in 1945, participants said, adding that the Sept. 11 terror attacks had affected the United States the way Pearl Harbor had before World War II.

The goal then was to transform Europe so that it would not drag the United States into another war, she said, while in today’s Middle East the goal is to create democratic systems that will dry up support for terrorism.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first time Rice had sat down with Jewish leaders since the road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace was officially unveiled in May. Since then, the White House has had its most active engagement in the conflict, including recent visits to the region by President Bush, Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

There has been significant progress during that period: Bush held summits last month with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders; Palestinian terrorist organizations have agreed to a three-month cease-fire; and Israel has handed over control of most of Gaza and Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority.

“The best way to describe it is, we’re really happy with what we’ve seen so far, but we’re realists in this administration,” Bush said Wednesday at a White House news conference. “We understand that there’s been years of hatred and distrust and we’ll continue to keep the process moving forward.”

The last time the Bush team met with leaders of American Jewish organizations, the Jews expressed great skepticism about Abbas’ ability to lead and resentment that Israeli interests might be sacrificed to build international support for the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Since that time, however, Jewish leaders have praised Bush for his actions, including the summits in Egypt and Jordan and his recent call on the Palestinians to dismantle terrorist groups rather than make do with a voluntary cease-fire.

There was some concern over Bush’s condemnation of Israeli attacks on a Hamas leader a few weeks ago, but after that Bush was relatively silent about Israel’s actions against the group.

But there may be new challenges ahead: The Bush administration is considering a welfare-type program for the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would, in theory, be run by the Palestinian Authority.

That would require the United States to break from its tradition of providing money in the Palestinian territories only to non-governmental organizations through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Hawkish groups such as the Zionist Organization of America plan to protest any direct aid to the Palestinian Authority. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups that have pushed to avoid direct aid to the Palestinian Authority say they’ll reconsider if the Palestinians indeed dismantle terrorist groups and institute controls to ensure the aid is not misused.

Rice said the White House could utilize a national security waiver on legislation preventing aid from being given directly to the Palestinian Authority.

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