News Analysis with P.A. in Flames, Jewish Leaders
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News Analysis with P.A. in Flames, Jewish Leaders

Condoleezza Rice may not have the pro-Israel lobbyists on her side in her latest plunge into Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking — but she has the supplicants.

Religious leaders of three Jewish denominations have gone out of their way in recent weeks to express their support for Rice’s renewed engagement in the region.

Most recently, a top Reconstructionist and a top Reform rabbi joined a multidenominational delegation of religious leaders led by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, who met with Rice on Monday to encourage her to press Israel and the Palestinians into making peace.

It’s a posture at odds with much of the pro-Israel community, which prefers that the United States hang back until the sides themselves appear more ready for peace.

That isn’t now, pro-Israel lobbyists say, with a terrorist group running the Palestinian Authority and the leading Palestinian factions engaged in what looks like civil war.

“In a perfect world, everyone wants peace,” one lobbyist said. “The real stumbling block is that Hamas wont renounce violence and recognize Israel’s existence.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the representations from the religious denominations were counterproductive.

“Unless the parties themselves are ready to put in sweat equity, a third party will not be productive,” Foxman said. “This only means putting pressure on Israel at a time when Israel does not have the partner it needs.”

Pressure might be inevitable, said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“Somebody’s got to help break the stalemate,” said Epstein, who signed a December letter to Rice from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East that led to Monday’s meeting. “I would encourage both sides to do it between themselves, but that isn’t necessarily working, as we have seen on a regular basis.”

Epstein, who said he signed the letter in a personal capacity, did not attend Monday’s meeting.

Rabbi Amy Small, a former president of the Reconstructionist movement who was at the meeting, said rabbis were natural interlocutors for peaceful intervention.

“The Jewish community prays for peace,” she said outside the State Department after the delegation met with Rice. “If we can achieve that, it will be celebrated.”

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, an executive vice president emeritus of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the U.S. role was critical to nudging the sides forward.

“The leadership of the United States is going to be not only to get the parties to the table, but to get concessions from both sides,” he said.

Notably the Orthodox are absent from such appeals. The Orthodox Union alluded to its opposition to pressuring Israel in a statement condemning Monday’s suicide bombing in Eilat that killed three Israelis.

“This terrible attack of unjustified and unprovoked homicidal violence against innocent and unsuspecting civilians should serve as a sad and sobering reminder to any who presume the responsibility for and the obstacles to peace rest on Israel,” the statement said.

In this case, at least, Rice appears to have caught up with the religious leaders who signed the letter. She is now actively engaged in the region, having toured it this month and organizing a leadership summit for next.

Accordingly, the religious leaders shifted their tone from mild reprobation in their December letter to applause after Monday’s meeting.

McCarrick said the delegation emerged from the meeting hopeful. The cardinal said the religious leaders “committed to continue to say tough things to our communities and in the Middle East to build up support” for Rice’s initiatives.

That will help if the pro-Israel giants rally for tough congressional oversight of the $85 million Rice has pledged to Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president whom Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hope to bolster in his face-off with the Hamas government.

Some lobbyists say they plan to use the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in the last session of Congress and signed by President Bush, to exercise that oversight. The legislation bans assistance to the Palestinian Authority as long as it is governed by Hamas.

The act has exemptions for Abbas, and Rice’s spokesman says she remains as committed as ever to isolating Hamas.

Sean McCormack addressed Russian plans to call for a lifting of Hamas’ international isolation this Friday when the Quartet — the grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that guides the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — meets in Washington. Last year the Quartet committed to isolating Hamas until it recognizes Israel, renounces terrorism and pledges to respect the P.A.’s past peace agreements.

“It is the one-year anniversary of the Quartet statement with regard to the behavior of Hamas,” McCormack said Tuesday. “That statement has actually held up quite well and been very important in rallying the international community to laying out a clear standard of behavior for the Palestinian government. Adherence to that statement actually has grown over time in terms of not only the members of the Quartet, but those in the region that have come out and not only supported it rhetorically and diplomatically, but in terms of their actions.”

The religious leaders who met with Rice have some allies in the pro-Israel community. Notably the Israel Policy Forum has commended her for pushing forward, and Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom also are sympathetic.

“We’re hoping that declared intentions will be followed up by real action,” said Ori Nir, APN’s spokesman. “But any kind of increased involvement is positive.”

Stephen P. Cohen, IPF’s national scholar, said the perception among Israel’s Arab neighbors was of an incremental change for the better in U.S. policy.

“There’s a sense of somewhat more uncertainty that the United States is going to do nothing,” he said.

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