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Jewish Groups Debate How to Back Sharon’s Gaza Plan

September 28, 2004
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Now that Ariel Sharon is hurrying along plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, a number of American Jewish groups believe it’s time to formally sign on with the Israeli prime minister. An effort to round up organizational support for the removal of settlements from the Gaza Strip and from part of the West Bank is revealing cracks in the U.S. Jewish consensus on Israel, with some groups enthusiastic, others derisive and others waiting to see how it plays out.

The Anti-Defamation League is circulating a “statement of support” for the plan.

“This plan is consistent with long-term strategic interests to promote Israel’s security and improve the situation on the ground in the territories,” it says.

The author of the statement, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, acknowledges that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would ordinarily be the avenue for such a community-wide statement.

The 50-plus-member Conference of Presidents’ standards for consensus, however, stymied him, Foxman said.

“I was hoping that it would be done through the conference, where most expressions of support come from, but it wasn’t possible because of the nature of the conference and the issue,” said Foxman, who said he hoped to issue the statement, along with signatories, after the Sukkot holiday ends on Oct. 8.

Foxman emphasized that his end-run was not implicitly critical of the conference, or of its senior executives and staff.

He said it had more to do with the pressures on Sharon, who is under pressure to shepherd the plan through Israel’s political system by March and to solicit support from Europe and the Arab world.

“In a situation where the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public supports the initiative of the government of Israel and the president of the United States has stood behind it in a letter, it’s appropriate for the American Jewish community to express itself in support,” he said.

Foxman does not yet have an idea how many organizations will join him, and several leaders interviewed said their groups were just now considering their stance.

Several senior staffers from member organizations said the Conference of Presidents would likely support the Gaza initiative, but was waiting for Sharon to pass his first political hurdle — a vote in the Knesset or in the full Cabinet, likely to take place within two months.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of Presidents’ executive vice chairman, said of his member groups: “Many have raised questions about the timing, not the substance, when the Knesset and government haven’t taken it up.”

Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents understood the time pressures, and was pressing forward with its consideration of the Gaza plan.

He said Foxman’s statement and others would be considered at an Oct. 14 meeting.

One problem dogging support of the ADL in its initiative is the sensitivity of ceding the lead to one of the 50 or so organizations around the conference table.

“By and large we prefer to see the conference speak with one voice when possible,” said David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director.

Harris said his group in principle supports Sharon’s plan — and has said so publicly — and he would not count out joining the ADL appeal.

Consensus “is not always possible, and we have to consider various options.”

Another factor is domestic politics, said Martin Raffel, the associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. A task force of the umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils decided in June to delay a decision on support until after the November presidential election.

“Things that were not partisan could be interpreted as being partisan,” Raffel said.

The main problem for many member organizations is that the plan’s governmental status is murky.

Sharon has won the overwhelming approval from his Inner Cabinet to set in place the legal, military, diplomatic and financial groundwork for the plan. But it has the caveat that ultimately nothing can move forward without approval either from the Knesset or the wider Cabinet.

That means that Sharon might be ready to go in March, his declared deadline for withdrawal, but might lack the political backing to do so.

Such ambiguity affects the traditional U.S. Jewish organizational ethos of letting the Israeli government take the lead on matters of Israel’s security — has the government spoken or hasn’t it?

“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves if it’s not clear if the Israeli government has or has not adopted this,” said David Twersky, the international affairs director of the American Jewish Congress.

He noted the AJCongress’s emphatic support last May for the withdrawal, but also noted its conditionality of the government accepting it.

Because the government has not yet accepted it, the AJCongress would not sign on to the ADL letter, Twersky said.

The organization most sensitive to not getting ahead of the Israeli government is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The powerful lobbying group is mindful, among other things, of the willingness of Israeli political parties to use its endorsement of any plan as a political football.

On the Gaza withdrawal, AIPAC has refrained from formal statements of support, instead emphasizing support for the U.S.-led “road map” peace initiative — a now-moribund plan that the Bush administration says could be resuscitated by the Gaza disengagement.

Other groups said to be reluctant to sign on include the Orthodox Union and the United Jewish Communities.

Without naming any groups, Foxman dismisses such concerns as nitpicking.

“The government of Israel to the best of my knowledge is the prime minister and his policies,” he said. “If the president of the United States felt comfortable enough with the plan, and if the Israeli public in poll after poll supports it in solid majorities, I think we’re okay.”

Foxman said the groups in Israel that oppose the plan — many of them often seeking support from American Jews — needed to know that the community was behind Sharon.

“Especially now that the prime minister is getting threats on his life, what we can do is say, ‘We’re with you,’ ” he said.

For his part, Hoenlein said there was no doubt that once disengagement was under way, the conference would be on board.

“When disengagement is implemented we’ll support him on it,” Hoenlein said of Sharon.

That might be a case of bolting the barn door after the horse has gotten away, said other organizational leaders who back Foxman’s statement.

“There is no issue that is more crucial to the future of Israel than the matter of this withdrawal,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“It is the issue that will determine Israel’s destiny. Think of the consequences in terms of Israel’s future, in terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship if there is no withdrawal. Let the conference take more time, but those of us who say it is critically important, we are saying the time is now to express our support.”

Yoffie, who said his group intended to sign on, said slowness was a longtime problem with the conference.

“The conference has 52 or 53 members and every member is equal whether they have 3,000 members or a million members, so the extent to which it is representative is always a question,” said Yoffie. “And it is reluctant on issues that run into resistance on the right.”

Such resistance is natural after the collapse of the Oslo process, said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America.

“Until the Israeli government formally approves throwing the Jews out of Gaza, no American Jewish leaders should be supporting this policy, it is not formal government policy,” Klein said.

Americans for Peace Now, also a conference member, said the pullout from Gaza signaled a return to defensible borders, and that U.S. Jewish support was crucial.

“I hope and expect that the conference will stand behind this recognition of existential choice for the Jewish state of Israel,” said Mark Rosenblum, an APN founder and the group’s policy director.

Like Yoffie, Rosenblum said time was of the essence.

If the Conference of Presidents doesn’t act, the ADL’s initiative could prove successful, he said.

“It will be too bad if the conference and the central umbrella organizations are unwilling to mount a significant campaign, but it will come from others,” Rosenblum said.

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