WASHINGTON, May 23 (JTA) Just what does it mean to support Israel’s quest for peace when violence is flaring in the West Bank and Israeli troops are exchanging gunfire with Hezbollah fighters across the northern border with Lebanon?
The images emanating from Israel this week reflect a flare-up of tensions not seen in years, sparking some concern and confusion about the peace process among American Jews.
Some feel anxiety, others disillusionment.
Against this backdrop, the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this week brought together some 1,500 pro- Israel activists from around the country including 650 students to address some of the major political issues facing Israel.
The message from the pro-Israel lobby to its delegates was clear: The Jewish community as a whole must be unequivocal in its unwavering support for the peace process. The message came from several quarters, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
“When we are united, we are much stronger,” Barak told delegates via satellite on Monday. The premier canceled his planned trip to Washington at the last minute to handle the emerging crises with Lebanon and the Palestinians back home.
Less clear, however, was how to translate that support into action.
Jewish officials express a general concern about the difficulty in engaging American Jews as the peace process ebbs and flows.
Despite the current tensions with the Palestinians back-channel talks in Sweden have been suspended in the wake of the latest Palestinian street violence and a hiatus on Israeli-Syrian talks, there is a general sense that the process is moving forward.
“People have moved on to other issues,” AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, said in an interview. Asserting that many U.S. Jews erroneously think the peace process, especially between Israel and the Palestinians, is already a done deal, Kohr said, “Some people believe the peace process has ended. We say that’s very dangerous.”
Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, agreed that more needs to be done to galvanize the grass- roots.
Barak would like to see a “crystallization of support” from mainstream Jewish organizations, Raffel said.
“The American Jewish community is always able to respond to crisis,” Raffel said. “But can we be a community that galvanizes in times of normalcy, not only when Israel is at war, but also when it is engaged in active peacemaking?”
For some grass-roots activists, support means letting the Israelis do what they see fit.
“Support means for the Israeli government and people to make the decisions,” said David Schlussel, a participant from Teaneck, N.J. “We don’t want to micromanage the peace process.”
Others show their support through newspaper ads. Thinking that Barak would be in the United States over the weekend, two groups that are staunch Barak supporters the Israel Policy Forum and the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation advertised their support for the prime minister.
“We salute Ehud Barak,” blared a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times by the Center for Middle East Peace, which is chaired by S. Daniel Abraham.
As activists fanned out over Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress on Tuesday, their messages of support were mostly general, though they did address the likelihood that more U.S. funds would be required to complete the peace process.
Talking points distributed to delegates included the message that the United States has “played a key role as facilitator of the peace process and must continue to play a critical role in providing Israel the security assistance it needs to take risks for peace.
“Peace does not come cheap, but it is a lot less expensive than war,” delegates were instructed to tell their legislators.
The message was similar to the words of Barak.
“The risks and price of peace are high, but the risk and price of war are unthinkable,” Barak said in his remarks Monday as he urged participants to increase their active support by lobbying Congress but also by working in their Jewish communities.
Lonny Kaplan, president of AIPAC, pledged that support to Barak, saying to widespread applause, “We stand ready to do anything.”
While the overwhelming tenor of the conference suggested that American Jews are willing to stand by Barak, not everyone here embraces his policies.
At conference forums some participants challenged speakers about the displacement of residents of northern Israel and Jewish settlers should land be given to the Palestinians and Syrians.
The peace process should be about more than forcing Israel to give up land in exchange for uncertain peace.
“‘Is Israel giving land away?’ is the only question asked,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Klein said Barak should demand that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat honor his obligations of the Oslo agreement, namely to arrest Palestinian terrorists and stop the spread of anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks and media.
Rabbi Herzl Kranz, an AIPAC participant from Silver Spring, Md., echoed Klein’s disapproval and berated Barak for the current problems.
“We need Jewish leadership to stand up and do what has to be done,” Kranz said. “Barak is giving everything away. It’s madness.”