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Behind the Headlines: U.S. Policy Toward Har Homa Draws Mixed Jewish Reaction

March 19, 1997
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The international political uproar over Israeli construction of Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem initially found American Jews circling the wagons.

Some criticized the timing of Israel’s decision, saying that it would endanger the peace process. But most defended Israel’s sovereign right to build anywhere in the city of Jerusalem.

What subsequently provoked a stronger and more divided reaction, however, was the Clinton administration’s response to the construction at Har Homa.

“A significant part of the community is very concerned about the way Israel’s been treated in recent days,” said Kenneth Jacobson, director of international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.

“The decisions by the Israeli government were not illegal and did not violate the Oslo accords,” he said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.

World reactions were “way out of proportion” and “we would have hoped our own government would have understood and tried to temper them.”

Jacobson, like many others, lauded last week’s veto by the United States of a U.N. Security Council resolution that denounced the construction as illegal. But he said there were a series of other steps “that were disappointing, and not necessary.”

He was referring, among other things, to Clinton’s statement that he wished that the Har Homa decision had not been made “because I don’t think it builds confidence.”

“I think it builds distrust” between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Jacobson said.

What disturbed many even more was the U.S. decision to send a representative to last weekend’s summit in Gaza convened by Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. Israel was not invited to the gathering.

Despite the role the United States ultimately played in muting criticism of Israel from the summit, many Jews said they were worried that it set a precedent that would hurt the peace process.

An unusually blunt letter to Clinton from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, said the conference “elevates the expectations of Palestinians that they can gain further concessions from Israel without negotiations.”

“Second,” the letter continued, “the willingness of the people of Israel to take risks for peace is based on their confidence in the support and friendship of the United States.” American participation in the conference “diminishes that confidence.”

AIPAC also drummed up opposition to the summit from more than 100 lawmakers, most from the president’s own party.

But there were some American Jews who felt just as strongly that it was improper to criticize the president, who they believed was merely fulfilling his role as an honest broker in the peace process.

For its part, Americans for Peace Now called on its constituents to write to Clinton and “inform him of your support for his commitment to Israeli security and the Middle East peace process.”

The sample letter it provided said the president’s statement on Har Homa “demonstrated thoughtful leadership and a deep understanding of Jerusalem’s sensitive nature. Americans for Peace Now fully supports your position on Har Homa.”

On the same side of the political spectrum, Tom Smerling, director of Project Nishma, an education and advocacy group, sought to put the administration’s actions in perspective and urged the community to do the same.

“This is not loan guarantees redux,” said Smerling, referring to the highly charged conflict during the early 1990s over U.S. loan guarantees for Israeli immigrant resettlement, which President Bush had made contingent on a halt in Israeli settlement building.

“Clinton is not Bush. Netanyahu is not Shamir. The issues are not at this level,” said Smerling.

“The most foolish thing the community could do is misconstrue tactical gestures by the administration necessary to maintain enough trust with the Arabs to keep the peace process alive, as anything remotely resembling a policy clash that endangers Israel.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, disagreed. “We strongly condemn President Clinton’s singling out Israel building homes on Jewish land as an obstacle to peace.”

He said it was unfair to ignore “Arafat’s true anti-peace behavior of not changing the covenant, not disarming terrorists and not keeping terrorists in jail.”

He also criticized U.S. participation in the Gaza meeting. He called the gathering a “violation of the Oslo accords,” noting that Israel was “conspicuously refused an invitation.”

For its part, the United Rabbinic Committee for the Security of Israel, including the National Council of Young Israel, called a news conference Tuesday to protest the “American meddling in Israel’s sovereignty.”

The mainstream National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council sent a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressing concern about the United States’ attendance of the Gaza meeting and encouraged its agencies across the country through an “action alert” to do the same.

But Martin Raffel, NJCRAC associate executive vice chairman, used the same language as Smerling in calling the conflict a “tactical disagreement” over how to get over the “current crisis” of Har Homa.

“It sets a precedent which is counterproductive to the peace process,” said Raffel, “but I don’t think this reflects a shift in U.S. policy.”

Still, he said, “there is always a certain amount of discomfort” among U.S. Jewry “when there are differences between Israeli judgment and American judgment, even on a tactical matter.”

For Raffel, the latest flap is a sign of things to come.

“We’re going to be in an extended period where the U.S. is juggling its unique friendship with Israel” with its need “to be the principal facilitator of the peace process with its multiple parties. There is an inherent tension.”

At a weekend congress of the American Zionist Movement, the umbrella organization of grass-roots Zionist groups, reaction was also mixed.

“Har Homa is clearly part of municipal Jerusalem and it’s purposefully misleading of Arafat to try to present it as another West Bank settlement,” said Elihu Davison, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Metrowest region in New Jersey.

“The problem isn’t with the legitimacy of development,” he said. “Rather it is with the timing, which I think is unhelpful.”

Joanna Weiss, national director of the campus organization the Progressive Zionist Caucus, said, “I’m terrified about Har Homa.”

It contradicts Israel’s pledge to negotiate the future of Jerusalem, she said, adding, “Nothing that’s built for Jews is going to be negotiated. It’s a slap in the face to the Palestinians.”

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