In Presidents Conference, Debate Continues on Draft of Gaza Statement

The effort to produce a statement supporting Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has revealed the political forces roiling the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. President Bush may have praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon six months ago for “historic and courageous actions” when he committed to withdraw from Gaza, but the Presidents Conference has kept mum on the issue.

Until now.

In an Oct. 14 meeting, the umbrella group of 52 Jewish organizations resolved to draft a statement, which was publicly released Wednesday.

“At the Conference’s meeting, a substantial majority of the member organizations expressed support for the Prime Minister’s disengagement plan as approved by the Israeli Cabinet, and an even larger number of member organizations said they could support such a plan when approved by the Knesset,” the statement reads.

The rest of the five-paragraph statement explains the reasons and context behind Sharon’s planned withdrawal. It reads like a narrative rather than a formal statement, noticeably lacking any formal quote or comment in the name of the conference.

To some conference members, it doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s a statement of the minutes of the meeting,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s more of an expression of what happened, and it lacks declarative” value.

“I believe that the prime minister of the State of Israel deserves a clear, full-hearted endorsement of the Jewish community in his effort to bring peace closer through disengagement,” he said.

But, he added, the community should now put the issue to bed and “move on.”

Foxman had complained that the Presidents Conference was dragging its feet on the statement since last week’s meeting — especially since several frustrated observers said a show of hands at the meeting indicated clear support for withdrawal.

Several members had raised concerns — such as the wisdom of issuing a statement before the Knesset votes on the plan Oct. 26 — but it’s unclear to what extent the divisions reflected competing political ideologies within the conference, whose member organizations span the political spectrum.

In any case, the time it took to craft a statement since the decision was taken signals the contentiousness of the issue, some say.

“This is a very divisive issue,” said James Tisch, chairman of the Presidents Conference, who said he wrote the statement along with executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein and a few other conference members.

The tone of the statement was meant to diffuse tension, he said.

“My thinking was if we were to report it as just one way or the other, the other side, to the extent that you want to call them a side, would feel vanquished,” Tisch said.

While the statement reflects significant support for withdrawal, “we didn’t want to give short shrift to those” against it.

At stake in the debate, some say, is the U.S.-Israel relationship and the role of American Jewry in nurturing those ties.

Mortimer Zuckerman, a past Presidents Conference chairman, called on the group to pass a statement supporting the plan.

Sharon’s failure to make good on his withdrawal pledge could wreak havoc on the U.S.-Israel relationship — so American Jewry is obligated to support the effort, Zuckerman said, according to Conference members.

The conference’s decision to back the Israeli plan comes only weeks after Foxman began circulating such a statement of his own, saying his efforts to have the umbrella group draft a statement had been stymied.

Foxman froze his initiative once the conference took up the issue, and said he won’t resume it.

Discussion at the Oct. 14 meeting followed a briefing by Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Daniel Ayalon, who urged the group to back the withdrawal plan.

While some groups said they would rather wait until the Knesset signs off on the deal, others have moved to take matters into their own hands.

“We weren’t going to wait for the Presidents Conference,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Currently in Israel on a leadership mission, the group gave its support for the planned withdrawal to members of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and various party leaders in meetings Wednesday.

“It was critically important to take a stand,” Rosenthal told JTA by phone from Israel. The group’s federation-affiliated community relations councils had expressed “very broad support” for the issue, she said.

Israeli legislator Shaul Yahalom, of the National Religious Party, wrote to the Presidents Conference, in essence telling them to mind their own business.

“It would seem to me that it is highly inappropriate for foreign Jewish organizations to consider taking sides on a matter that has yet to be approved by the Knesset,” Yahalom wrote Oct. 14 to Hoenlein.

Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs and communal relations for the Orthodox Union, said her group “would be more comfortable in waiting to see how the Knesset vote turns out.”

Neil Goldstein, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, expressed a similar sentiment.

“We support the disengagement, contingent on a definitive decision by the Israeli government,” he said.

Others dismissed the Knesset vote as irrelevant.

“When a prime minister represents a policy, it’s the policy of Israel,” Foxman said.

He added, “Why all of a sudden now we’re having this political science debate, it’s beyond me.”

Others feel that their own understanding of the situation trumps any Knesset vote.

“The mission of the Conference of Presidents is to do what we think is best for Israel, not necessarily to support any specific policy of any prime minister,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Klein said there was no consensus or agreement at the umbrella group’s meeting. Furthermore, he said, “we should not get involved in a contentious issue while they’re still sorting it out in Israel.”

Yet Klein said he would oppose Israeli withdrawal from Gaza even if the Knesset supported the move.

Others say Israel has to withdraw to preserve its Jewish character and its democracy.

“Demography is not a question of opinion. It’s a question of fact,” said Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now.

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