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On Israel Visit, U.S. Jewish Leaders Quiz Parties on Hamas, Withdrawals

In a crowded hotel conference room, American Jewish leaders lined up to ask questions of the new faces leading the Labor Party. They wanted to know the party’s positions on Hamas, religious pluralism and civil marriage. Among the questions was one that has become something of a theme of the group’s pre-election visit, as they meet with the leaders of Israel’s major political parties: How would they deal with possible future evacuations of Jewish settlers in the West Bank — both from illegal outposts and from longtime, legal settlements?

“To have a Jewish democracy, we will have to bring most of the settlers back,” said Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet security service, who recently joined the Labor Party.

But, he cautioned, “We need to talk to settlers before violence starts.”

Ayalon was addressing a mission from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, currently in Israel on its annual visit to the Jewish state. The group includes 52 Jewish organizations representing a range of religious and political perspectives.

They’re in Israel during an especially intense period, even by local standards. Among the issues they’re discussing is the Iranian nuclear threat, Hamas’ recent victory in Palestinian Authority legislative elections and the upcoming Israeli elections.

They also are bearing witness to Israel’s new political landscape. After six decades during which Labor on the left and Likud on the right dominated Israeli politics, Kadima, the first centrist party with major support, is leading in the polls ahead of the March 28 elections.

Delegates did not speculate on whom their constituencies supported politically, focusing instead on what information about the parties and issues they could bring home.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the presidents conference, said he thinks both Israelis and American Jews are becoming less ideological about Israeli politics.

The delegates are learning from the visit, he said.

“Hearing different points of view helps them better understand the dynamics of the issues,” he said. There’s a consensus on most of the issues, such as cutting off aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and getting tough on Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and calls for Israel’s destruction, Hoenlein said.

Most seemed reconciled to further withdrawals from the West Bank. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pledged further withdrawals, which he described as a continuation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s path. Sharon has been in a coma since an early-January stroke.

“There is very little dissension within this year’s mission,” said Rabbi James Lebeau, a representative of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “Another disengagement will take place, and my sense of protest or dissension” among the delegates “is in what felt like the mistreatment of the evacuees in the first disengagement, and that the second disengagement would be handled more humanely.”

The group met Wednesday with some settlers evacuated from Gaza, and also with Ilan Cohen, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office who helped oversee the withdrawal.

Gerald Platt, of American Friends of Likud, said the dramatic footage of Jewish settlers clashing fiercely with Israeli soldiers and police during the evacuation of the illegal Amona outpost earlier this month weighed heavily on delegates.

“In every discussion here, every speaker is questioned about their plans for future disengagements in view of the Amona behavior,” Platt said.

After Olmert’s address to the group Tuesday in Jerusalem, Stephen Savitsky, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, questioned him about the former Gaza Strip settlers, some of whom reportedly have yet to receive full government compensation.

“It’s now six months after the evacuation. For the sake of uniting the Jewish people, will you see to it that these citizens’ needs are taken care of?” Savitsky asked.

“I absolutely understand what the people have been through. I supported the pullout… but I understood how painful and difficult it will be,” Olmert said. “We will do everything we can to complete their being settled as soon as possible.”

Olmert also spoke indirectly of his plans for further withdrawals.

“We will take care of our security, we will fight against the terrorists but we will keep all the doors open for the possible future movement that will create a better chance for a meaningful dialogue with our neighbors and that will make sure that we can protect the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. “We want every part of the Land of Israel, but first and foremost we want to make sure that this country will remain quieter, a Jewish state and a democratic state.”

Conference members were especially interested in how the different prime ministerial candidates would handle the challenge of Hamas, which is poised to lead the Palestinian Authority.

Olmert told the group that Israel was prepared to break ties with the Palestinian Authority once a Hamas-led government is sworn in.

“I here, on behalf of the government of Israel, pledge to you that we will not negotiate and we will not deal with the Palestinian Authority that will be dominated, wholly or partly, by a terrorist organization,” Olmert said. “Once the government is dominated by a majority of Hamas people, it ceases to be the authority which it was. It becomes something entirely different, something that Israel is not ready to compromise with, nor is it ready to actualize it.”

Amir Peretz, head of the Labor Party, also called negotiations with Hamas a red line.

Hamas “is a terrorist organization and no funds must reach them, not from Israel and not from the international community,” he told the American group Wednesday. “I call on the entire international community to adopt this red line as well.”

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running on a campaign platform pledging to be tough on Hamas, sought to contrast his stance with Olmert’s.

“How may we vote for a candidate who did not understand the relevance of Hamas’ rise to power?” he said of Olmert.

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