Jewish Leaders Laud Abbas As Moderate, a ‘breath of Fresh Air’

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met many American Jewish leaders for the first time Thursday, aiming to convince them he’s no Yasser Arafat.

In a meeting he requested and which the Israel Policy Forum and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs organized, Abbas presented himself as a moderate and supporter of a peaceful, two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, several participants said.

Abbas “is a breath of fresh air,” said Michael Bohnen, chairman of the JCPA, the umbrella group for Jewish community relations councils and national organizations.

“There’s a certain amount of trust now” in Abbas, added Marvin Lender, chairman of the executive committee of the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington group that supports Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives.

The Washington meeting marked the first time many American Jewish officials have met Abbas, the U.S.- and Israeli-backed Palestinian leader who was appointed when the United States and Israel said any progress in negotiations required a change in the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has continued to thwart Abbas at times, but the two recently worked out a power-sharing arrangement.

The 90-minute session at the St. Regis Hotel gathered together between 50 and 70 members of a range of Jewish organizations, ranging from left-of-center groups such as the IPF and Americans for Peace Now to more centrist groups such as the JCPA, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and Hadassah, as well as several major federation leaders.

Many of those who participated said they came away convinced Abbas is a moderate alternative to Arafat who wholeheartedly supports President Bush’s “road map” to peace, even if he is not able to deliver the Palestinian people as well.

“He expressed a strong desire for peace” in “an exceedingly moderate tone,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s synagogue arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“He wasn’t patronizing, and he didn’t gloss over the differences.”

According to many at the meeting, Abbas blamed Israel for delivering what he termed “weapons in the hands of extremists” that threaten to scuttle the first signs of hope in the peace process in three years.

Those weapons, Abbas said, included Israel’s continued building of settlements, its refusal to release all Palestinian prisoners, its construction of the security fence along the “seam line” of the West Bank, and its maintenance of security checkpoints in and near Palestinian areas.

Alan Solomont, chairman of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who also attended, said Abbas told the group that he hopes to get U.S. government and American Jewish backing to convince Israel to act on these issues.

Abbas told the group that “if these weapons exist, then the extremists can say, ‘Let’s do it our way,’” Solomont said.

Judy Yudof, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, that movement’s congregational arm, said Abbas called the security fence a “modern-age Berlin Wall,” but she said she reminded him that Israel erected the fence in response to “homicide bombers” attacking Israelis.

“I think there were certain things he needed to say because he was there representing the Palestinian perspective,” she said.

Part of his message also included a call for U.S. Jews to promote further U.S. aid to the Palestinians, as a way to promote their peace efforts.

Abbas told the group he would seek additional U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority as a way to rebuild its infrastructure and make further peace moves.

The White House recently earmarked $20 million in humanitarian funds to the P.A., the first time the United States has designated direct aid to the Palestinian leadership.

Abbas met earlier Thursday with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and was due to meet Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell during his visit this week as well.

Yudof said she asked Abbas whether he would consider using U.S. aid to build new social service institutions to replace those that the militant Hamas has created as a way to win goodwill among Palestinians on the street.

Abbas said that “if he could replace the social services that Hamas provides, he could put them out of business,” Solomont added.

While never mentioning Hamas by name, he told the group that crucial social services are “run by other organizations” and “we would like to be able to provide those services,” Solomont quoted him as saying.

In the past few months, Abbas has said he cannot, and will not, forcibly try to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In this meeting, “he did not really deal directly with the question of dismantling” the terrorist groups, said Jess Hordes, director of ADL’s Washington office.

But Abbas said he believes strongly in fostering ties between Israelis and Palestinians through professionals such as lawyers, or via groups such as Seeds for Peace, which promotes co-existence, several participants said.

He told the group the P.A. has created several committees to deal with such ties, and also to deal with incitement to terrorism — one step the road map requires.

“Abbas achieved what he set out to do — to present himself as a moderate person who is committed to a two-state solution,” Hordes said.

Not all Jewish groups invited did attend. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee was working to hold a “private” meeting with Abbas, a spokeswoman said.

And Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he could not attend because he had a full schedule, meeting such officials as Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.

Several of the participants at the Abbas meeting were also due to meet the Palestinian Security Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan in Washington.

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