WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Bush’s latest Middle East peace initiative earned the backing of the centrist pro-Israel establishment in about as much time as it takes to pronounce AIPAC, ADL and American Jewish Committee. Just as quickly, however, the plan was criticized by Jewish groups on the left and right.
Encomiums of support from the centrist establishment triumvirate came down within hours of Bush’s announcement of a plan that would transfer substantial funds to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and call for a regional peace conference in the fall.
Murmurs of doubt arose, however, from smaller groups that at times have successfully nudged the larger organizations, as well as the U.S. Congress, away from the administration’s policy on the peace process. Both Americans for Peace Now on the left and the Zionist Organization of America on the right raised objections to the plan.
Within hours of Bush’s speech on Monday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the AJCommittee issued statements praising the initiative, focusing primarily on Bush’s reiteration of support for Israeli security guarantees.
“As the president laid out in his speech, the Palestinians have a clear choice to make,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said. “They can go down the path of terrorism and violence or choose the path of negotiations and progress toward peace with Israel.”
Echoed the ADL: “The president plainly identified the clear choices facing the Palestinian people between a hopeful future and one of continued despair.”
The emphasis in Bush’s speech was indeed on Palestinian reform.
“The Palestinian people must decide that they want a future of decency and hope, not a future of terror and death,” Bush said. “They must match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror. The Palestinian government must arrest terrorists, dismantle their infrastructure and confiscate illegal weapons.”
The president also called for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, held for more than a year by Hamas-affiliated gunmen in Gaza.
Bush also called for reform to take place in the broader context of Arab recognition of Israel. He praised the revived Arab League initiative that would exchange a comprehensive peace for Israel’s withdrawal from lands it captured in 1967.
“Now Arab nations should build on this initiative by ending the fiction that Israel does not exist, stopping the incitement of hatred in their official media and sending cabinet-level visitors to Israel,” he said.
That message earned praise from the AJCommittee, which noted that only Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania and Qatar have relations with Israel.
Bush placed a rare emphasis on U.S. expectations that Israel freeze settlement expansion, saying that “Israel’s future lies in developing areas like the Negev and Galilee, not in continuing occupation of the West Bank.”
When pressed, State Department officials will note that an end to the occupation is U.S. policy. But Bush’s comments – delivered in firm tones at the session attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – were unusual.
Americans for Peace Now welcomed the emphasis, noting that repeated commitments on ending the occupation have been “unfulfilled.” However, the group expressed concern that Bush continued to freeze out any possibility of a reconciliation between Abbas and Hamas, despite the Islamist organization’s pre-eminent role in Gaza.
“This administration’s policy of freezing out Palestinian leaders and political players it does not like, in the naive hope that this will disempower or transform them into Western-style democracies, has failed,” Peace Now stated. “The vital interests of both the U.S. and Israel demand sober, pragmatic policies, not moralizing and sloganeering.”
The Israel Policy Forum, another group that backs greater U.S. engagement, praised Bush’s speech as showing “courageous, hands-on engagement.” However, Israela Oron, a former Israeli general, met with Congress members this week under IPF’s aegis and also expressed doubts about excluding Hamas from the mix.
“A Hamas that doesn’t have what to lose in the Gaza Strip is a very dangerous Hamas,” she said.
ZOA President Mort Klein issued a statement saying that Bush was “making the same mistakes as President Clinton and the late Prime Minister Rabin made when they promoted the false premise that Yasser Arafat was a moderate peacemaker who would make peace with Israel if Israel made major concessions.”
Bush pledged to move more than $270 million in appropriated funds to the Palestinians, including $80 million to the Palestinian Authority for defense training – much greater sums than were available until just a few weeks ago, when Abbas was still in a nominal coalition with Hamas.
Congressional sources said they did not foresee a problem for such a transfer, although at least one critical constituency – evangelical Christians – was set to pose tough questions.
“We will be analyzing that speech very carefully, then making judgments about where to weigh in,” said Gary Bauer, a top evangelical leader attending this week’s national Christians United for Israel summit.
Bauer spoke with some authority: The event drew 4,000 delegates from all 50 states, with appointments in virtually every congressional office set for Wednesday.