NEW YORK (JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found himself under criticism this week by America’s largest Orthodox group, foreshadowing a likely showdown between left-wing and right-wing Jewish groups.
The Orthodox Union, which claims to represent about 1,000 synagogues, issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Olmert for not defending Israel’s right to Jerusalem in the face of Palestinian claims on parts of the city during his speech at the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
O.U. leaders voiced “concern” that Olmert “did not explicitly resist Palestinian President Abbas’ claim to a piece of Jerusalem.”
The O.U.’s statement was just one sign of Orthodox and right-wing groups ramping up their campaign this week to head off any Israeli deal for sharing or dividing Jerusalem. The campaign comes as Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pledged this week to try to forge a peace deal by the end of 2008.
In his speech Tuesday, Olmert stressed that the forthcoming negotiations would “address all the issues that we have so far avoided addressing. We will do this directly, openly and courageously. We will not avoid any issue. We will address all core issues.”
Presaging the debate certain not only to roil American Jews but Israeli Jews as well, he went on to say: “I have no doubt that the reality that was created in the region in 1967 will be changed in a very signficant way. It will be as difficult as the netherworld for many of us. But it is inevitable.”
Those coordinating the campaign to maintain a united Jerusalem met Monday with U.S. President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and helped arrange several U.S. appearances this week by Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, an outspoken opponent of dividing Jerusalem.
In addition, the groups are pressing the Jewish community’s main umbrella body on Middle East affairs, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to issue a statement reiterating its longtime position that Jerusalem should remain Israel’s undivided capital.
Representatives of the Orthodox community met on Tuesday with Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the 51-member umbrella organization, to press their case.
Olmert appeared to take issue with such efforts. When asked by JTA about the issue during a press briefing Monday, prior to the launch of the U.S.-led peace talks in Annapolis, Md., Olmert said: “Does any Jewish organization have a right to confer upon Israel what it negotiates or not?”
“This question was decided a long time ago,” he said. “The government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel.”
Olmert added that, at this point, Jerusalem was not on the table.
While that was the case at Annapolis, where the two sides were not expected to delve into the thorny issues of borders, refugees, settlements, security and Jerusalem, the lack of any concrete peace proposal has not stopped Jewish liberals and conservatives from reopening their decades-long battle over the peace process.
Communal insiders say the front line is now the Conference of Presidents. In addition to pushing for a statement on Jerusalem, opponents of Israeli concessions to Abbas also are lobbying for the umbrella body to call on the Palestinian leader to abrogate any clauses in his Fatah Party’s constitution that support terrorism or call for Israel’s destruction.
Both issues are expected to come up at the Conference of Presidents’ next general meeting, on Dec. 20, several members said. Liberal groups say that they will fight both initiatives, painting them as transparent efforts to undercut Olmert’s talks with the Palestinians.
“These proposals, from what I’ll call some of the right-of-center groups, would really put the Conference of Presidents in opposition to some of the initiatives that the U.S. and the Israelis are currently working on,” said Kenneth Bob, president of Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance. “At a minimum, I would expect the conference not to support any of these proposals whose motivation is to show opposition to the peace process, early stage as it is.”
A leading U.S. dove, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, indicated that he would oppose any resolution that would be seen as undercutting Israeli peace moves, but he stressed that he supported the idea that the Conference of Presidents, which operates according to consensus, should be debating such issues.
“We are a divided community,” Yoffie said, “so we need to have free and open discussions to determine what the consensus is.”
Advocates on both sides said that there was a push by the Zionist Organization of America and its president, Morton Klein, to get the Conference of Presidents to adopt a position criticizing the Fatah constitution ahead of the Annapolis talks.
To fend off such a development, one leading left-wing group, Americans for Peace Now, sent a letter to conference leaders calling for the matter to be shelved, saying it would be wrong to take action “without first closely examining the original document referenced in the resolution and without clearly understanding what the appropriate procedure would be for its amendment, if such amendment is indeed necessary.”
“We attempted to obtain an original text of this document, which apparently dates back to the mid-1960s, and could not find one, either in Arabic or in English,” the Peace Now officials wrote in their Nov. 13 letter. “As far as we can tell, this means that the quotes included in the resolution are thus far unsubstantiated.”
Klein rejects the arguments of those who say the Fatah document is no longer in force. He also denies that the ZOA was trying to sink peace talks by pressing the issue. Instead, he countered, no negotiations could succeed unless Abbas was willing to confront anti-Israel and pro-terrorism rhetoric.
Leaders of the O.U. were similarly quick to reject the idea that they were attempting to dictate Israel’s final position on Jerusalem.
In response to Olmert’s comments asserting Israel’s right to negotiate, O.U. leaders issued a statement Monday saying that “in vigorously advocating for the unity of Jerusalem in the weeks leading up to the Annapolis conference, the Orthodox Union has not sought to ‘confer upon’ or dictate to the Israeli government what it has the legal right to negotiate about with Palestinian or other Arab leaders.”
“We have, however, sought to express our heartfelt and strong view that all Jews around the globe have a stake in the holy city of Jerusalem, and that to cede portions of the city which has been the spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for millennia is a step the government of Israel ought not take,” said the president of the O.U., Stephen Savitsky, and its public policy director, Nathan Diament.
Savitsky and Diament noted that in an address to O.U. leaders last year, Olmert voiced approval for the notion that U.S. Jews should feel free to express their disagreements over Israeli policy.
In a briefing with Jewish communal leaders late in the day on Tuesday, Olmert clarified his remarks. Hoenlein, who was at the meeting, said the prime minister explained that he was trying to say that the ultimate decision rests with Israel, but he “welcomes and appreciates the input of American Jewry.”
“He reiterated the right of people to speak out,” Hoenlein said.
In their statement Tuesday criticizing Olmert’s speech, O.U. also slammed the Joint Understanding that Olmert agreed to with the Palestinians. In particular, they objected to a mutual commitment to “confront terrorism” whether “committed by Palestinians or Israelis.”
“There has been no Israeli action against Palestinians that can possibly be equated with the suicide bombings, roadside shootings or rocket attacks that have been inflicted on thousands of Israelis in the past several years,” the O.U. leaders complained. “The onus for restraining terror is squarely on the Palestinians – and they have so far failed miserably to do so.”
Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report from Annapolis, Md.