Rice address coming amid skepticism


NASHVILLE (JTA) – With skepticism mounting over the upcoming American-backed Middle East summit, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to address the 3,500 delegates at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

Rice, who is scheduled to speak Tuesday at the closing plenary session, returned recently from a series of meetings in the Middle East with Israeli and Palestinian officals aimed at laying the groundwork for the summit, which is slated for the end of this month in Annapolis, Md.

She has described the current diplomatic push as the most serious attempt at peace since the last months of the Clinton administration.

Rice’s speech at the G.A. comes amid mounting Jewish opposition to various proposals aimed at jump-starting Israeli-Palestlnian talks and a growing campaign to raise questions about whether the Palestinians are committed to peace.

Support is building in the Jewish community’s main pro-Israel umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for a resolution calling on Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas – the Bush administration’s main Palestinian partner – to rescind any clauses in his Fatah party’s constitution that challenge Israel’s right to exist.

In addition, a growing coalition of Orthodox and right-wing organizations are mobilizing to head off any proposal for dividing or sharing Jerusalem.

In addition, The New York Jewish Week, with one of the largest circulations in the country, published a column last week at the top of its front page slamming Rice’s currents efforts.

In the column, titled “Rice’s Folly,” editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt asserted that “diplomatic amnesia has descended on Washington once again.” A supporter of a two-state solution, Rosenblatt nonetheless echoed growing concerns among some influential Jewish organizations that a failed summit could end up triggering a fresh round of violence.

“We all want peace, but we should have learned by now that it can’t be imposed from outside, no matter how powerful or well-intentioned the U.S. is,” Rosenblatt wrote. “And there are no quick fixes in Middle
East diplomacy. What Washington can do best is help build trust, not twist arms.”

U.S. officials are saying off the record that the peace conference will begin Nov. 26 as planned. What it will achieve – or who will attend – is less certain. The United States has yet to formally invite any nation to participate.

The Bush administration is still hoping for senior Saudi Arabian participation to lend the conference more weight. Israel wants Syria to come, but Syria wants guarantees about the return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, before it attends.

More substantively, the sides are at odds about the outcome. The Palestinians seem to be pulling back from even recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, while the Israelis are sending contradictory messages.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Rice he is ready to make substantive sacrficies toward a final agreement before Bush leaves office in January 2009. But his senior ministers, including Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have told Rice they don’t think that goal is realistic.

In the face of Jewish opposition, supporters of the Annapolis conference say that Rice’s speech at the G.A. is an important opportunity for the administration to make the case for peacemaking efforts and to ask for American Jewish backing.

“So far, for the most part, major national Jewish organizations have been silent about the Annapolis conference to some extent because they have felt they didn’t know what the process is about,” Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans Peace Now, said in an interview at the G.A.

“Secretary Rice has a chance now to make a case for the process and to solicit the support the process needs from American Jewish community leaders. And it’s about time for America’s Jewish community to show its support for the peace efforts in a tangible way,” said Nir, who was in Nashville to promote his group’s recently launched campaign, “Push for Peace, Now,” which seeks support for Rice’s efforts.

Jeff Ballabon, one of the organizers of the new coalition opposing a deal on Jerusalem, also was pushing his message at the G.A. The coalition, known as the Coordinating Council on Jerusalem, already has met with White House officials and lobbied members of Congress.

“Israel’s most active proponents have gathered immovably around the basic pre-Oslo conviction that Jerusalem is simply non-negotiable,” Ballabon said. “For that reason, together with the obvious lack of Palestinian leadership who either can or want to make peace, no amount of political salesmanship will outweigh the reality that Annapolis is doomed before it starts.”

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