WASHINGTON, April 19 (JTA) Jewish groups might have been expected to react strongly to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s criticism of Israeli military reprisals in the Gaza Strip as “excessive and disproportionate” yet few organizations took the administration to task for the harshest American language against Israel in quite some time.
With a few notable exceptions, Jewish organizations let Powell’s comment slide, choosing to say little in a situation that might have prompted a harsh reaction under past administrations.
The reasons for the muted reaction are complex, Jewish leaders say.
For one, Powell’s comments were the first major strike against what has been a surprisingly warm relationship between the Bush administration and Israel under new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
More importantly, the Bush administration has made it clear to key Jewish leaders through subtle comments in private conversations that criticism of Israeli actions may help the United States push its Iraq policy and gain credibility in the Arab world. Yet Bush has made clear that when push comes to shove, America stands firmly behind Israel, they said.
“The State Department feels an obligation to shore up the standing of moderate Arab allies” such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah “who are under enormous pressure by their own people in regard to the perceived bias in favor of Israel,” said one Jewish source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The statement the other day was constructed with an Arab audience in mind.”
In private conversations over recent months, Bush officials had warned American Jewish leaders that Israel was not exempt from American criticism.
“The assurance was that, fundamentally, we’re still there and you can count on us,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “There would still be moments of opposition. The question is whether this is just a moment or is a significant change of attitude or approach.”
Many Jewish leaders believe the quick escalation of violence in recent days was extraordinary, warranting Powell’s comments.
“A lot of people in the American Jewish community have been sobered up by the events of the last week,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “They were surprised by how quickly events could spread out of control.”
Roth said Jewish organizations needed to “take a deep breath, count to 10 and get a broader perspective of what the administration is expressing its opinion about.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations tried to get more details about Powell’s intentions, speaking with White House and State Department officials in the hours after the announcement, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman.
“We told Powell that we felt that this language was inappropriate and subject to distortion by the media,” Hoenlein said.
Still, Hoenlein said, the conference’s reaction was muted because they considered Powell’s statement balanced. While criticizing the Israeli incursion into Gaza, Powell acknowledged that it was “precipitated by the provocative Palestinian mortar attacks on Israel.”
“He didn’t denounce” the Israelis, “he criticized them,” Hoenlein said. “By and large, this administration has done the right thing.”
Several other Jewish groups agreed with Hoenlein’s sentiments but there were a few exceptions.
The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs came out against Powell’s comments, saying the Israeli reaction was both necessary and proportionate to the provocations from Hezbollah and the Palestinians.
Those comments were echoed by the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America and B’nai B’rith.
Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, said Powell’s comments were an “overreaction.” While the statement indeed criticized the Arab attacks that precipitated the crisis, it also made an erroneous judgment about the Israeli action, Foxman said.
Tom Neumann, JINSA’s executive director, said he was concerned about the “timidity” of other American Jewish groups, who may have hesitated to stand up to the Bush administration for fear of losing proximity to the new president.
“They’re interested in access,” Neumann said. “They like shaking hands with the president, they like shaking hands with the senator. They like shaking hands with Arafat, for God’s sake.”
Ominously, Neumann said, the Arab-American community has recognized the value of speaking with one voice on issues, while the once stable and influential voice of American Jewry has become fractured.
Added to that, he said, is the fact that Jewish groups are growing reluctant to speak their minds for fear of losing their place at the table.
For example, the AJCongress did not issue a press release against Powell’s comments in part because they hope to convince Powell to attend the Congress’ annual meeting next month, Baum said.
Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, said American Jewish groups never have kept quiet when they feel strongly about an issue, but are sensitive to the current administration’s desire to maintain its standing in the Arab world as an honest broker.
“We use this as an opportunity to encourage them rather than to criticize them,” Smerling said. “It’s more important to build a relationship, and I think people are mature enough to realize that.”
Roth said access is important because it allows an organization to make its voice heard. A group that is constantly critical of an administration will be ignored, he said.
Still, Hoenlein cautioned, “you don’t lose access for differences if you do it in the right way and on legitimate grounds.”
With the Bush administration still finding its feet, most Jewish leaders said it is too early to openly criticize its Mideast policy. Many key administration officials are not yet in place, forcing Jewish officials to take a “wait and see” approach.
Powell’s criticism must be viewed as just one statement in nearly 100 days of largely positive stances toward Israel, they said.
“It may well be, from time to time, there will be real differences” between the Jewish community and the administration, Baum said. “That’s bound to happen. As long as the direction is clear, we can accept that.”