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Leslie Susser is the Diplomatic Correspondent for the Jerusalem Report. Jewish Leaders Note U.S. Rhe

March 20, 2002
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The Bush administration has been exerting increased pressure on Israel during Vice President Dick Cheney’s tour of the Middle East, but Jewish leaders say the U.S.-Israeli relationship has not reached a crisis point.

While they are closely watching U.S. rhetoric, Jewish leaders are “far from panicked about the situation,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We believe the United States and Israel are cooperating and consulting.”

Many pro-Israel activists concede that U.S. pressure on Israel played at least a part in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to drop his demand for a week of quiet before starting security negotiations and before Israeli troops withdrew from Palestinian-ruled areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip this week.

Sharon also agreed to lift a travel ban imposed on Arafat after a series of devastating terror attacks against Israel in December.

Israel had kept Arafat confined to his Ramallah headquarters since then, demanding that he arrest the Palestinians who assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in October. The Palestinians arrested several suspects in recent months.

But many say the pressure is due to a rare convergence of factors, and is not a major policy shift for the Americans.

The first factor is the vice president’s travels. Cheney’s goal in the Middle East was to garner support from Arab states for an eventual U.S. attack on Iraq. His delegation was concerned that Arab leaders would demand greater American effort to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian problem before listening to the U.S. case against Iraq.

The need to focus on Iraq led the Bush administration to dispatch envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region last week to try to negotiate a cease fire, and pressure Israel to aid the effort.

Despite the dispatch of Zinni, Cheney was met at each stop with tough questions, both publicly and privately, about U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and with strong requests for more pressure on Israel.

Cheney has “been listening to a symphony” of concern from Arab states, which is influencing his comments, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The United States is calibrating its policies without changing them.”

The second major factor has been increasingly aggressive military actions by the Sharon government. While most American Jewish leaders have justified the attacks, calling them reprisals for Palestinian violence, they note that the level of violence — and Sharon’s bellicose rhetoric — warranted U.S. condemnation.

American Jewish leaders note that comments urging Israeli withdrawals and restraint have been heard throughout the 18-month Palestinian intifada, though this time the criticism of Israel is especially severe. The American calls are making news this time, in part, because the Israeli leadership is acceding to the demands.

Some argue that the most significant development is the change in tone by Sharon, and is based mostly on pressures from both right and left wings of the Israeli unity government.

While a small right-wing party withdrew from the government this month because it felt Sharon was not being aggressive enough, the Labor Party — and many Israeli voters — were increasingly critical of Sharon’s moves.

“All these things coming together make it seem like a change in policy,” Foxman said. “But they are responding to circumstances.”

American Jewish leaders say the new American dynamic mainly is a shift in tone, but several said they will continue to monitor the situation. They note that the important gauge for determining a change in U.S. policy will be administration rhetoric after Cheney returns to the United States.

“We will be watching to see what statements are made by senior members of the administration,” Raffel said. “Are comments about Israeli defensive actions a one-time situation, or are they going to be expressed more regularly?”

Foxman said the concerns Sharon raised shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks — questioning whether Israel would be sacrificed to aggressors the way Czechoslovakia was before World War II — still loom in the back of the minds of some American Jewish leaders. Though the comments were dismissed at the time, the possibility that the analogy is accurate still worries Jewish leaders.

There also is growing concern that not enough pressure is being placed on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to rein in violence. While the Bush administration has condemned Arafat frequently over the past few months, those comments recently have become fewer — and, of more concern to Jewish leaders, often coupled with comments condemning Israeli actions.

Specifically, some Jewish groups want the Bush administration to define the consequences if Arafat ignores American demands. While Sharon is making concessions — including allowing U.S. monitors in the region — Jewish leaders are concerned that not enough attention is being paid to what should happen if the Palestinian leadership fails to uphold its commitments.

“It doesn’t matter what Israel does, it doesn’t matter what the U.S. does,” said one Jewish leader, who argues that Arafat holds most of the cards.

“The United States and Israel share the view that it’s basically up to the Palestinian leadership to move to take effective measures to bring violence on the Palestinian side under control and end incitement,” Raffel said. “If that doesn’t happen, there will be no cease-fire, no pathway to the Mitchell plan.”

The plan, devised by an international commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, laid out a series of confidence-building measures that would follow a cease-fire and lead to renewed diplomatic negotiations.

However, Jewish leaders were pleased that Cheney chose not to meet with Arafat during his Middle East trip.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, said Bush administration policy has been consistently bad for Israel.

“There has been some increase in the hostile rhetoric to Israel, but the policy has been essentially the same since day one,” Klein said. “They have continued to try and appease the Arab regimes.”

Some Jewish groups praise the movements by the United States and Israel.

“I think a more hands-on, balanced approach is sustainable, as long as they see results on the ground,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. He said the parties must work simultaneously on both the security and political planes if they hope to see results.

That long has been a Palestinian demand, while Sharon — and the United States — had insisted until recently that the diplomatic process could not resume until the Palestinian offensive against Israel ended.

Anything else, Sharon had insisted, would amount to a reward for Palestinian violence.

“The ‘military only’ approach simply doesn’t work,” Roth said. “As bitter a pill as it may be to swallow, Israel won’t have the type of security it deserves until there is a political approach.”

Steven Cohen, an analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, said the greater U.S. involvement is important, but it shouldn’t be done solely to garner Arab support for a possible attack against Iraq.

“We understand that the war on terrorism and the war on Palestinian terrorism need to be addressed by serious American policy,” Cohen said. “The administration has been very careful to try and keep all of these issues linked in the minds of the Arab world. We have to do what we can to de-link them by dealing with each of these separately.”

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