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U.S. Jewish right muted ahead of possible extension of settlement freeze

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Don’t expect a familiar American echo now that West Bank settlers are gearing up to fight the possible extension of Israel’s settlement freeze.

Activists on the left and right in Israel usually get their allies in the American Jewish community to fight for the cause of the day with congressional lobbying and protests to Israeli and American officials.

But with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sending signals that he might extend, at least partially, the West Bank construction freeze he imposed 10 months ago, American Jewish groups supportive of West Bank settlements do not appear to be gearing up for battle. At least not yet.

The reason, activists say, is that American Jews on the right still support Netanyahu, and there is virtual unanimous support on Capitol Hill for extending the freeze if it will help keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to withdraw from the talks if the freeze is not extended, and last week President Obama said he supports an extension. This week, Netanyahu suggested that he’s open to some sort of compromise.

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, which supports settlers’ rights to build, said that although he is chagrined, there is little his or other U.S. Jewish organizations can do. Last week he issued an appeal to Netanyahu not to extend the freeze. Klein said he also has sounded out members of Congress, and no one was ready to oppose an extension of the freeze.

"If Obama and Israel both are doing it, it’s very hard for a congressman to take a position that both Israel and America support," Klein said. "What’s in it for them politically?"

In Israel, however, settlers are gearing up for a major effort aimed at embarrassing pro-settler parties into quitting Netanyahu’s government and thereby causing it to fall.

"We can use the political leverage we have within the political system to make the extension of the moratorium impossible," Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, the settlements’ umbrella body. Dayan spoke to JTA earlier this month during a trip to the United States to rally opposition to the renewed talks.

But with a prime minister in office who carries credibility with the American Jewish right, activists on the right said they are willing to give Netanyahu leeway — for now.

Aaron Troodler, the spokesman for the National Council of Young Israel, which is strongly pro-settlements, said in a statement that his group would consider an extension of the West Bank construction freeze regrettable, but he did not outline any protest actions.

"The National Council of Young Israel has friends, family and Young Israel synagogues in Yehudah and Shomron, and we are deeply concerned about their ability to enhance their communities while the moratorium remains intact and their growth is inhibited by virtue of the building freeze," Troodler said, using the Hebrew for Judea and Samaria, the Israeli terms for the West Bank. "The residents of Yehudah and Shomron need a place to live and grow and should rightfully be permitted to do so, just as people in communities around the world are permitted to do. It would be unjust for their rights to be curtailed any longer."

But Israeli officials remain concerned about a possible backlash from the American Jewish right should the freeze be extended in some form.

"The moratorium was very unpopular with the American Jewish right," Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said recently in an interview with Jewish media. "I anticipate further, if we move down this road toward an agreement with the Palestinians, that’s just going to begin."

Jewish groups on the left also are watching developments.

"The extension of the moratorium requires a proactive action by the government," wrote Lara Friedman, director of policy for Americans for Peace Now. "The moratorium is set, under law, to expire automatically on September 26th. Absent affirmative action by the government to extend the moratorium, settlement construction will be able to immediately restart."

As many as 2,000 housing units are likely to start right away, Friedman told JTA, because infrastructure already is in place or money already has been invested by buyers and developers. Another 11,000 units could be built at anytime, she said.

William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, said Netanyahu’s approach to the peace process will continue to set the tone for the U.S. Jewish community.

"Anytime there’s a story about the settlement freeze being nuanced, you see folks on the right being critical," he said. "The vast majority of American Jewry believes that Netanyahu, as the democratically elected leader, is in the best position to determine what is best for Israel."

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