Questions remain after visit to Israel

American Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein is interviewed by Israeli TV at the scene of a Palestinian bus bombing in Jerusalem, Feb. 22. (Brian Hendler)

American Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein is interviewed by Israeli TV at the scene of a Palestinian bus bombing in Jerusalem, Feb. 22. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Feb. 26 (JTA) — They came, they saw — perhaps more than they had bargained for — and they left, many with more questions than when they arrived. If the 100 participants on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ annual Israel mission expected to leave early this week with clear answers to Israel’s most pressing problems, they may have been disappointed. But in large part the confusion reflected the uncertainty Israel itself is experiencing as it prepares for what many Israeli officials believe will be among the most critical months in its history. “I thought that the Israeli officials would be able to give us a few more answers,” said Betty Ehrenberg, international affairs director of the Orthodox Union, as the five-day mission was winding down Sunday night. “Whenever we come, we confront Israel as she is at that moment — and I think we leave with the sense that Israel is really at a very difficult point, a most uneasy and unsure point in its history.” Despite the lack of details, conference officials — who represent a group of more than 50 Jewish organizations from across the religious and political spectrum — said they would continue to lobby for Israel’s political plans. Virtually all of the top-level political and security officials who met with the U.S. delegation addressed the two most pressing issues on Israel’s agenda: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is planning, and the controversial security barrier Israel is building to keep Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating Israel from the West Bank. On the barrier, at least, Israeli officials from left to right presented a united front — that the Jewish state not only is within its rights to build the fence but that it desperately needs it to keep out terrorists. One such terrorist, a 23-year-old man from a village near Bethlehem, on Sunday morning blew up a commuter bus barely 100 yards from the hotel where the American delegation was listening to a briefing from Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. The bombing shocked members of the Presidents Conference group, most of whom had never seen a terrorist attack up close, and intensified the debate over whether a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will deter terrorists or merely whet their appetites. Many in the group argued that the withdrawal would embolden Palestinians to intensify their attacks in hope of prompting further Israeli concessions and troop withdrawals. Opinions were divided over whether Sharon is serious about carrying out the Gaza pullout or whether he announced the plan merely to divert attention from corruption investigations surrounding him and his two sons. Yet nearly all members of the mission appeared disconcerted that Israeli officials were able to offer so few specifics of the Gaza withdrawal plan: how and when the withdrawal would take place, where displaced settlers would be relocated, what would happen with the empty settlements and who would fill the resulting power vacuum in the Gaza Strip. “Not one of the Israeli officials that we met with — and we met with the highest — could clarify what the withdrawal would mean,” Ehrenberg said. “It seems that the plan is new and is still being formulated. I’m just surprised that something as drastic as this plan would be announced to the world before it’s fleshed out.” Joshua Katzen, chairman of the board of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, agreed. “I think the confusion we feel reflects the confusion in the government,” he said. Not everyone was surprised by that. “I wasn’t expecting answers, so therefore I wasn’t disappointed,” said Larry Hochberg, national chairman of the Friends of the IDF. A certain amount of confusion among the membership is inevitable, given the complexity of the challenges Israel is facing, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice chairman. “The purpose of the mission is to raise questions, not just to get answers,” Hoenlein said. “It gives the leadership a context to examine the issues. In that sense it’s incredibly helpful. People go home with a much better understanding of the issues. The Gaza withdrawal is still something of a question mark, but at least the leadership now has a framework for an informed discussion.” Indeed, the delegation heard from virtually all of Israel’s top leadership, among them Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, Ya’alon, Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter and an array of journalists, academics and security analysts. Many of the sessions were off the record. Among the most explosive sessions was a panel with political views ranging from Elie Rekhess, a specialist in Israeli Arab affairs who is affiliated with the left-leaning Abraham Fund, to Eve Harrow, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. One audience member asked Harrow why young Israelis should risk their lives to protect Jews living in settlements in disputed territories. Other members of the group blasted Rekhess when he suggested that he had no answers for his children — who are leaving Israel — when they ask why the government hasn’t managed to bring peace. Seymour Reich, a past chairman of the conference, said the presentations likely did not change delegation members’ minds. The mission “probably reinforced the views that people already had,” Reich said. “If you favor some progress, then you walked away feeling that what you heard supports it. If you’re against the withdrawal, you might have walked away feeling confused or unsettled.” So, too, with the bombing, which came just as the delegation was preparing to visit the security fence being erected in the Jerusalem area. The conference’s top leadership was taken to the scene of the bombing, where they saw body bags lined up on a blood-stained sidewalk, while the rest of the participants continued with the scheduled tour. “While it was a tragic event, I don’t think it will have a long-term impact on the members,” Reich said. After all, he noted, “the streets were cleared within two hours and the mission resumed.” Hoenlein predicted that the mission would inform conference discussions for months to come. “The decisions being made right now will have far greater consequences” than the issues such delegations usually encounter, he said. “A lot of missions try to give simple answers. We don’t want to do that. But members will be prepared for whatever issues they may confront in coming months.” Sharon’s apparent determination to pursue the Gaza withdrawal, and his ability to rally key Cabinet members around him, could make it easier for supporters of Israel to lobby for the plan in the United States. “There was one line from Sharon, Olmert, Shalom, Mofaz — each said the same thing,” Reich said. “Notwithstanding the lack of detail, there’s a consistency in approach.” In the wake of the mission, Reich said, groups such as the Presidents Conference and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee likely will do all they can to gain the Bush administration’s backing for Sharon’s plan. “The conference will invariably follow the lead of the Israeli government,” Reich said.

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