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Breaking with Tradition Ajcongress Urges U.S. Jews to Participate in Israel’s Debate on How to Achie

September 23, 1987
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The American Jewish Congress released a policy statement late Monday endorsing an international conference for Middle East peace to serve as the framework for direct Israeli-Arab negotiations.

The matter has split Israel’s unity coalition government along party lines: Labor favors the conference scenario, Likud is adamantly opposed. The AJCongress statement clearly favors the position of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader.

It acknowledged in its statement that by so doing the organization “broke tradition under which American Jewish organizations have refrained from speaking out on issues affecting the peace process.”

The statement, released in the name of AJCongress president Theodore Mann, maintained that because “the government of Israel itself is divided and deadlocked over how to approach the peace process” it was “necessary and appropriate” for American Jews to “participate in the current historic debate.”


Release of the policy statement apparently was timed to coincide with Peres’ visit to New York to attend the 42nd annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. Asked about it at a briefing for Israeli reporters at the UN Tuesday morning, the Israeli Foreign Minister said he thought American Jews had an absolute right to express their opinions about anything but he did not believe the AJCongress statement would change or have any effect on the debate over the issue in Israel.

“American Jews are our partners. I’m not disturbed by a debate within the Jewish people. The debate about an international peace conference is a legitimate debate and I don’t see any harm in it,” Peres said.

There were no other immediate comments from Israeli sources. But the reactions of other mainstream American Jewish organizations ranged from mildly negative to, in one case, an angry attack on the AJCongress’ initiative.


The AJCongress appeared to have had second thoughts on the impact of its policy statement. The first text was “killed” after it was released to the press. It was followed by a new text several hours later which, while essentially the same, contained softer language in many instances.

Mann, reached by telephone in Philadelphia Tuesday morning, explained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the first text was a draft that had been put before the AJCongress National Governing Council at a meeting on September 13 but not approved and its release was an error. The second text, he said, was the one endorsed by the Governing Council on the same date.

In its statement, the AJCongress takes the position that an international peace conference “satisfied in sufficient measure Israel’s insistence over the past 39 years that peace can be achieved only in direct, face-to-face negotiations.”

It said a major consideration in releasing the position paper was the finding of recent demographic studies on Arab population growth. The rise in Arab numbers “is rapidly transforming ‘Greater Israel’ — Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza — into a de facto bi-national state, politically and culturally.”

According to the AJCongress, “If no significant political adjustments are made, the demographic imperatives will force Israel to choose by the year 2000 between becoming a non-Jewish state or a non-democratic state.” To find a “realistic alternative,” the AJCongress supports an international peace conference, if, the statement stressed, there are “reasonable assurances” that “written understandings between Foreign Minister Peres and King Hussein (of Jordan) and the safeguards they contain” will be honored.

The AJCongress said it believes that direct negotiations under an international conference “might bring … genuine movement toward peace; the crafting of a consensual set of compromises, both territorial and functional that would remove the stigma and opprobrium suffered by an embattled occupier,” and “the relief of Israel and its supporters from the anguish involved in the daunting choice between a non-democratic and a non-Jewish bi-national state.”


The statement conceded there were “risks” in joining such a conference, such as “having to leave the conference table and suffer condemnation as the party that broke up the conference. But they are not security risks and they do not outweigh the advantages of an international peace conference based on safeguards agreed to by King Hussein….

“These understandings propose that as a prerequisite, all prospective conveners will be obliged to recognize Israel, that it will be made unequivocally clear from the start that the essential purpose of the conference is to legitimize direct negotiations between and among the most interested parties, and that the referral to the conveners of any issue for resolution will require the consent of all parties to the negotiations.”

The statement noted that “Israel has made clear that as a prerequisite for participation the Soviet Union will be obliged to restore diplomatic relations and liberalize Jewish emigration.”

The AJCongress urged that “achieving these conditions and the subsequent convening of such a conference ought to be energetically pursued.” It assailed “Arab intransigence and obdurate refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the area . . . But the fact of that refusal must never become a reason for abandoning or diminishing our pursuit of peace.

“Large numbers of Israelis and American Jews are convinced that there are realistic alternatives to the status quo that would enhance Israel’s security and would avoid the demographic and other dangers of continuing an unavoidably hostile occupation. A position that calls for maintaining the status quo or annexation of the occupied territories severely hampers the development of such alternatives.”

The AJCongress acknowledged that “We offer our view with a sense of modesty appropriate to our awareness that we are remote from accountability should our views prove wrong…”

That reality was reflected in a statement issued Monday by Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — of which the AJCongress is a member.


Abram said: “There are strongly divergent views about the wisdom and nature of an international peace conference both in Israel and in the United States. The people and government of Israel have the responsibility for the safety of the state and therefore they must make their decision through their democratic process.”

Milton Shapiro, president of the Zionist Organization of America, declared that “If the rationale of the American Jewish Congress was followed, there would never have been a Jewish State established in the first place. By contrast, ZOA believes that Israeli policy in such matters is the prerogative of the people of Israel, who are quite capable of making decisions in their own democratic self-interest.”

The ZOA, Shapiro said, “rejects the negative and defeatist conclusion of the American Jewish Congress.” He noted that “The potential danger for Israel in an international peace conference under present circumstances far outweighs its potential for peace.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, rejected the AJCongress’ implicit call on other American Jewish organizations to follow its initiative. “We won’t do it. For me the stakes are too high to make a mistake. When and if Israel makes up its mind on how to proceed, then we’ll deal with whether we support it or not,” Foxman said in a statement to the press.


The modification of language between the first and second texts released by the AJCongress was apparent in the first paragraph of each. The first text said the organization backed the international peace conference “rejected by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.” The second text said it supported a compromise solution for the occupied territories and backs the international peace conference “as advocated by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.”

In the first version it spoke of American Jewish organizations’ reticence “on issues affecting Israel’s security.” That was changed to read “issues affecting the peace process.”

Elsewhere, the first text called on American Jews to take part in “the continuing examination of options.” In the second text that was changed to “participate in the current historic debate.”

A paragraph in the first version which spoke of relieving Israel of the “choice between a non-democratic repressive state and a non-Jewish binational state” appeared in the second text, but with the word “repressive” eliminated.

Also eliminated from the second text was a paragraph which stated, “We regret that the development of such alternatives has been severely hampered by those who reject all compromise and seem immutably dedicated to the annexation of the occupied territories, no matter the risk to a democratic Israel or a viable Jewish state.”

In releasing what he termed “this unprecedented policy statement” Mann described it as the product of a “careful, deliberate and responsible process.” He said an 18-member AJCongress task force visited Israel in early July and during a week-long period held “intensive discussions on the subject with Israeli government officials, academics and foreign policy and defense experts representing the entire range of Israeli opinion.”

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