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Rabbis Like U.S. Support for Israel but Want Progress on Peace Talks

Leaders of three Jewish religious denominations say they appreciate President Bush’s solid support for Israel but also want the United States to broker a peace accord. The leaders of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements joined Christian and Muslim counterparts Tuesday in urging Secretary of State Colin Powell to increase U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to name a new envoy. Orthodox Jews were not represented at the meeting with Powell.

The meeting was a reminder, just two weeks after Bush was feted at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, that strong support for Israel is not enough for many Jews. They want U.S. engagement in the process, too.

The group, the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative, wants the Bush administration to work within the “road map” peace plan, which was crafted by the United States with its “Quartet” partners — the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

“The road map is the best hope for peace and we have really gotten sidetracked,” Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, said at a news conference after the meeting.

The road map remains the official policy of the Bush administration on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it has been all but abandoned, and peacemaking has been stalled.

In April, Bush declared support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. There has been little U.S. communication with the Palestinian Authority leadership since Mahmoud Abbas resigned as P.A. prime minister last year, and U.S. officials remain skeptical of current Palestinian leaders.

Despite their call for progress on the road map, the Jewish denominational leaders said they support Israel’s plans for disengagement from the Palestinians. This approach complements the pro-Israel lobbyists who welcome Bush’s unabashed support for the Jewish state, they said.

“If the United States is perceived as being one-sided, the opportunity to bring the parties together will not be available as an option,” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.

Rabbi Amy Small, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, said in an interview that she believed the road map was never given a full chance to succeed, and that an envoy was needed to hold the parties accountable.

“If there is an envoy on the ground, working with the parties, we can have progress,” she said.

The State Department said Powell was receptive to the group’s ideas. He agreed with the need for an envoy but suggested that now was not the right time.

“He was not in any way adverse or opposed to the appointment of high-level envoys,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said after the meeting, but the envoy “needed to be appointed at a time and to work at a time when there’s really something to do, when there’s really some way of making progress by using such an envoy.”

The religious leaders countered by suggesting that an envoy could create the right environment for diplomatic progress.

“They are looking for the appropriate moment,” said Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, archbishop of Washington. “We are saying we believe now is the appropriate moment.”

Powell also seemed to suggest that the first step had to be Palestinian cessation of violence toward Israel.

“He reiterated the need for control of the violence and for the Palestinians to take responsibility to control the violence,” Boucher said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said unilateral action would only work if it were the basis for increased engagement.

“We all agree that any unilateral action that becomes the be-all-and-end-all substitute for negotiations undermines Israel’s security,” he said at a news conference. “It’s up to the United States to use its influence to ensure that any unilateral action brings us back to the road map and makes negotiations easier.”

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