Behind the Headlines: Mix of Relief, Disappointment Pervades U.S. Jewish Community
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Behind the Headlines: Mix of Relief, Disappointment Pervades U.S. Jewish Community

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Relief, resignation and disappointment rippled through the American Jewish landscape in the wake of this week’s signing of the long-delayed agreement on the Israeli redeployment in Hebron.

But despite the range of reaction, there was little fear that the accord would sow the kind of deep divisions here that are erupting throughout Israel, where some settlers have threatened to try to bring down the government.

The agreement, reached early Wednesday morning after months of delay, provides for the transfer of most of Hebron to Palestinian control as well as commitments to future Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.

Centrist organizations said they “welcomed” the accord. They hailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for holding firm in the face of domestic opposition and fulfilling his international obligation to advance the peace process.

They also took pains to laud the efforts of U.S. Middle envoy Dennis Ross and Jordan’s King Hussein to help orchestrate the deal. And they urged other Arab nations to renew the normalization of ties with Israel.

“I start from the premise that the majority of American Jews support the peace process, and that includes the Oslo agreements,” Martin Raffel, associate vice chairman of National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian accords that provided a framework for the process.

“And I think that what happened will serve to alleviate concerns by some that this Israeli government’s approach to the peace process would lead to deadlock.”

Raffel said reactions from community relations councils across the country were “positive but measured.”

People are wary of waxing “euphoric,” he said, because “they sense the road ahead will be no less difficult than the road already traveled.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, concurred that “reaction overall is positive.”

“There always will be people who are unhappy” with agreements, said Hoenlein, whose organization welcomed the pact. “But the vast majority support it and realize the international obligation Israel had to fulfill.”

While there is real concern by some about the safety and security of Jews living in Hebron, said Hoenlein, the agreement’s “real test is its implementation.”

He said the conference, which represents groups across the political spectrum, would be “pro-active to make sure the rhetoric is responsible” when it comes to public pronouncements on the accords.

Orthodox Rabbi Haskell Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan is also concerned about civility in public discourse within the Jewish community and in relations between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

But Lookstein, who recently hosted an interdenominational meeting of rabbis seeking such civility, was not alarmed about the immediate repercussions of the Hebron agreement.

“I think this is something the prime minister had to do and I’m glad he did it, even though leaving any part of Eretz Yisrael is something of great pain and tragedy to me,” he said.

He said he expected some people to “cry out very strongly” in protest against the agreement, but would be doing so “to create more pressure to prevent what they see as undesirable compromises in the future.”

Overall, though, he sounded a pragmatic note.

“I would hope that people would recognize the reality of the situation,” said Lookstein.

Netanyahu “slowed down the process” to give Israel “a greater opportunity to deal with issues of security for Jews in all parts of the Land of Israel.”

“We have to be able to live with Palestinian Arabs next to us” and the Israeli government has “found the best kind of modus vivendi for the crisis.”

Chaim Kaminetsky, president of the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue movement that includes many members with families living in the territories, was not so sanguine.

“Everybody knew it was inevitable,” he said of the agreement. “But I’m very unhappy about it. I’m disappointed it had to come to this.”

At the same time, he expressed confidence in Netanyahu’s commitment to protect Israelis’ security. “I’m hopeful,” he said. “He knows better than anyone who he’s dealing with.”

For his part, Yechiel Leiter, head of the foreign desk for the Yesha Council, which represents 144 settler communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said he had been “inundated” with calls from sympathizers during his visit to New York this week.

Many are upset about the agreement and critical of Yesha’s decision to come to the government’s defense, said Leiter, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Eli.

They are saying that if Netanyahu “is doing the same thing as Peres, we should go for the jugular.”

He said his response to the agreement is: “It’s bad, it’s wrong, but it’s the best we could get in the context of what Netanyahu inherited.”

“We’ve been consistent,” Leiter said of his movement. “We’ve been opposed to Oslo from the outset because it has the potential for war rather than peace. We said it’s best if we end the dance with the wolves.

“But Netanyahu has said, `I can dance with the wolves and get a better deal.’ And that just remains to be seen.”

So far, said Leiter, who is also chairman of the One Israel Fund, which raises money in the United States for humanitarian causes in the territories, the current accord is a big improvement over the agreement forged under former Primer Minister Shimon Peres.

As examples, he cited limits set on how high Palestinians are permitted to build around the Jewish community in Hebron and a new provision for a buffer zone between that community and Palestinian police stations where weapons will be housed.

Meanwhile, Leiter distanced Yesha from recent comments by a colleague, quoted in The New York Times, indicating that his movement would seek to bring down the government.

“We are not encouraging” the “toppling of the government,” he said. “What will we get? If the government fell, any leverage we have will be completely nullified.”

Instead, he said, “we’ve got to lobby from within.”

Leiter, like others, expressed concerned about how enforceable provisions for the extradition of Palestinian terrorists would be.

Israel maintains that the Palestinians have not been complying with the extradition provision in previous accords. And Leiter said he is not convinced of the effectiveness of the U.S. letters guaranteeing reciprocity that accompany the agreement.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Americans for Peace Now hailed the agreement as a “historical turning point.”

But it also cautioned that there are many unknowns and areas of disagreement between the two sides, most notably the extent of territory in the West Bank from which Israel must redeploy by mid-1988.

The degree to which the differences can be bridged, said an APN statement, “depends on President Arafat’s ability and resolve to control Palestinian acts of terror originating form the Palestinian Authority’s domain.”

“Of equal importance,” the group said, “is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s willingness to put pragmatism over ideology by exchanging a significant amount of land in return for peace and security.”

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