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Debate erupts over role of Jewish groups

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, meets  with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, Nov. 19, 2007, as part of a last-minute round of talks to  bridge gaps before the Annapolis summit. (GPO / BPH IMAGES)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, Nov. 19, 2007, as part of a last-minute round of talks to bridge gaps before the Annapolis summit. (GPO / BPH IMAGES)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – On the eve of U.S.-convened Middle East talks, a battle is erupting over whether the American Jewish community should be supporting or obstructing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s efforts to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Olmert’s opponents are pushing their case at the two main community-wide pro-Israel groups – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, is facing criticism from one of its main donors, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, over its support for a congressional letter that urges the Bush administration to increase assistance to the P.A. An active Republican and supporter of Jewish philanthropic causes, Adelson likened AIPAC to a friend assisting Israel’s suicide.

“If someone is going to jump off a bridge, it is incumbent upon their friends to dissuade them,” Adelson, told JTA. He added, “I love and admire the concept of AIPAC.”

At the same time, JTA has learned, the leaders of eight groups in the 51-member Conference of Presidents are urging the community’s main umbrella organization on Middle East affairs to “reissue its long-held position on Jerusalem as the undivided sovereign capital of Israel or convene a meeting, without delay, to discuss the issue of Jerusalem.”

Some of the same organizations are also pressing the Conference of Presidents to call on Abbas to abrogate what they say are clauses in his Fatah party’s constitution supporting terrorism and calling for its destruction.

Several of the groups lobbying AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents are challenging the Bush administration’s insistence that Abbas is a true partner for peace who should be boosted with U.S. aid. They are also attempting to head off any Israeli willingness to compromise on Jerusalem.

The efforts to thwart any potential Isaeli concessions on Jerusalem and other issues revives the decades-old argument over whether American Jewish groups should show deference to Israel’s duly elected prime minister on security-related matters.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of Presidents executive vice-chairman, noted that the letter requesting a statement on Jerusalem was not directly related to the Annapolis talks. He added that it was the one issue where Diaspora Jews had an unfettered right to speak out. “Jerusalem is a different issue,” he said. “It’s a question where everyone has a right, if not an obligation to speak out.”

Hoenlein expressed frustration at how Israeli politicians had made Jerusalem an issue, even though it is not up for discussion in the immediate future. He singled out Haim Ramon, the Israeli deputy prime minister, who has proposed relinquishing some Arab neighborhoods in the city. “Why give away a strategic asset before the negotiations?” Hoenlein asked.

In the lead up to Israel’s pullout from Gaza, a handful of American Jewish groups opposed the move, while the overwhelming majority decided in the end that they should support a move proposed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and backed by U.S. President George W. Bush.

This time around, in advance of the upcoming talks in Annapolis, Md., a wider spectrum of Orthodox and right-wing groups are mobilizing against potential Israeli moves and ratcheting up their criticism of Olmert.

Meanwhile, some centrist organizations have generally been sitting on their hands, skeptical over the usefulness of the Annapolis meeting, and still unsure if Israeli leaders truly want to be there or are simply placating the White House.

One major exception is AIPAC. In addition to offering support for aid to boost Abbas, the executive director of the pro-Israel lobby, Howard Kohr, on Monday released an op-ed titled “Promising Step,” which praised Bush and Olmert, and argued that if Arab states and Palestinian leaders step up to the plate, “the U.S. effort to move the process forward may yet lead to a successful outcome.”

A similar statement was released by the chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization, in which she questioned whether the Palestinians were ready for peace, but voiced support for the Annapolis meeting and the efforts of the Bush administration.

Among the critics of the renewed diplomatic push is the Orthodox Union. The group stayed out of the debate over Gaza, but is now playing a lead role in opposing a deal on Jerusalem.

In addition to the O.U., the letter on Jerusalem to the Conference of Presidents was signed by the heads of the National Council of Young Israel, Zionist Organization of America, American Friends of Likud, B’nai B’rith International, Jewish War Veterans of the USA and Emunah of America. Eli Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, also was listed as a signatory, but without his organizational affiliation.

While Jerusalem is emerging as a rallying point, Nathan Diament, the director of the O.U. office in Washington, said that for many groups, the questions extend to the wider strategy of pressing forward with Israeli-Palestinian talks at this time.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, not just relating to the Jerusalem issue,” Diament said. “It relates to a serious questioning of why do we think it’ll be any better this time around.”

In some cases, the skepticism over Annapolis is producing an increasing willingness to challenge Israel’s prime minister. Last week, a think tank affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition launched a broadside against Olmert.

Jonathan Schanzer, the director of policy at the RJC-affiliated Jewish Policy Center, co-wrote an article arguing that Olmert’s apparent willingness to concede parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians “can be seen only as a last-gasp effort to revive his flatlining premiership.”

Schanzer authored the piece with Asaf Romirowsky, who is identified as an associate fellow of the Middle East Forum and manager of Israel and Middle East Affairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, another organization that generally avoids any criticism of the Israeli government.

Schanzer and Romirowsky compared Olmert to Labor predecessors Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, saying they also agreed to similar concessions in last-ditch efforts to save their legacies.

“Olmert is now chasing peace with the Palestinians at all costs, in a desperate attempt to secure his place in world history, knowing full well that future Israeli history books will not be kind,” they wrote. “This fits a sad but familiar trend of other sputtering Israeli prime ministers in recent history.”

Mortimer Zuckerman, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents and a prominent supporter of the Gaza pullout, told JTA that he is “very, very concerned” the Annapolis meeting could backfire by failing to live up to expectations, since Abbas and Olmert are both probably too politically weak to produce any serious accomplishment.

“There is no doubt that there is great pressure on from the secretary of state on the Israelis,” said Zuckerman, the publisher of the New York Daily News and U.S. News & World Report.

Despite such sentiments, Zuckerman expressed confidence in Bush and Olmert.

Comfort with Bush’s record on Israel helps explain the ambivalent feelings among many Jewish groups, said Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League and another supporter of the Gaza plan who now has serious questions about the upcoming meeting.

“On the one hand, this initiative comes from President Bush who has, during the last six to seven years been so supportive, at a time where very few in the world have been, so there’s a comfort level that he will not do anything to hurt Israel,” Foxman said. “The discomfort is there are too many questions, what is the goal, where is it going?”

This uncertainty helps account for the silence in many centrist circles.

“The naysayers are always more vocal than the yeasayers, and you can match them with” dovish groups such as Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, Foxman said. “There are those who expect too much and those who expect nothing.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, expressed similar concerns about Annapolis. But he signaled a commitment to respecting the decision of the Israeli government.

“We’ve never been in a position of second-guessing the Israeli government on negotiating strategies and we’re not going to start now,” Harris said. “We’re always one step behind, not one step in front.”

 

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