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Orthodox Group Breaks Barriers with Discussion of Palestinian State


The most influential Orthodox group in North America may soon weigh in with the Bush administration on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Executives of the Orthodox Union are being asked to debate a series of questions on Palestinian independence.

The goal is to relay their concerns to the White House and State Department — and perhaps the Israeli government — to help shape the peace process, O.U. leaders said.

Preliminary versions of the questions surfaced during the O.U.’s national convention in Rye., N.Y., held Dec. 26-29.

The O.U.’s advocacy arm, the Institute for Public Affairs, long has taken positions on the Palestinians and the peace process, and the convention backed a new statement urging reform of the Palestinian Authority.

But the questions — which deal not just with the concept of a Palestinian state but with its details — would signal the first time the nation’s largest Orthodox group has formally discussed a position on Palestinian statehood.

The debate reflects a bold step for some O.U. members, said the group’s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.

“The sense of the group was very mixed about the wisdom of even talking at this point about a Palestinian state,” Weinreb told JTA.

But at a time when most American Jews, Israelis and members of the international community have accepted the inevitability of a Palestinian state, rabbis from the liberal Jewish movements questioned the relevance of the O.U. debate.

The Reform movement has advocated a Palestinian state since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform synagogue umbrella group.

For a Jewish group “to be a player and have an impact on American policy, you can only do so if you recognize that a Palestinian state is an element here,” Yoffie said. To avoid such a position “is not helpful.”

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also questioned the point of an O.U. letter on Palestinian statehood.

“I can’t believe many of the people in high positions in Israel haven’t asked similar questions,” he said. “The answers really belong in a dialogue with the Israeli government and the United States or the” diplomatic “Quartet” — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — that is seeking to persuade Israel and the Palestinians to accept a “road map” toward peace.

But Weinreb said others felt the Orthodox Union should attempt to raise its concerns at a time when the Quartet is finalizing its road map.

The O.U.’s senior vice president, Fred Ehrman, first formulated the questions during a convention panel on Palestinian statehood. The union should pose the following questions to the Bush administration, he said:

Will the emerging Palestinian “entity” be a state or some kind of autonomous region?

What will that entity’s borders be, and will Israel have the right of “hot pursuit” of terrorists over those lines?

Who will control the borders, airports and seaports?

Will the Palestinian entity be demilitarized? Given the P.A.’s clear violations of weapons restrictions imposed under the Oslo accords, how would Israel enforce a demilitarized zone?

How can Israel ensure that Jewish holy sites such as the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron be protected?

Who would control water resources in the West Bank, which provide a significant portion of Israel’s water supply?

While the questions are open-ended, comments by key O.U. officials reflect the longtime opposition to a Palestinian state among many fervently Orthodox Jews.

“A Palestinian state was an idea created with the sole idea of obliterating the State of Israel,” said the vice president of the O.U., David Luchins, who called himself “the house liberal” at the convention.

Ehrman said he personally opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, but does support some form of limited Palestinian self-rule.

“Israelis should not rule over 3 million Palestinians, but that does not mean you should give them full sovereignty,” he said.

Ehrman said he has asked O.U. President Harvey Blitz to decide quickly whether to have some 35 O.U. executive committee members debate how to frame the questions to U.S. officials.

The union should hammer out a position it can present to administration officials before Israeli elections on Jan. 28, he added.

O.U. executives will give Ehrman’s questions “very serious consideration,” Weinreb pledged. “His views will be heard.”

Meanwhile, a statement from both senior executives and rank-and-file participants at the convention asked Congress to enact legislation codifying President Bush’s June 24 speech, in which he said the creation of a Palestinian state is conditional on an end to terrorism and significant Palestinian political and educational reforms.

Such moves should include “an end to the corruption” of the Palestinian Authority, said Betty Ehrenberg, director of international and communal affairs for the Institute for Public Affairs.

A draft statement from the convention called on the Palestinians to demonstrate a “tangible commitment to peace” by “confiscating illegal weapons, and ceasing all incitement to hatred, including anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the part of Palestinian leaders and media sources and in children’s textbooks.”

Ehrenberg said the union wants Congress to pass either a bill or a resolution to that effect.

Should the Palestinians ever meet those standards, she said, “I would expect a very big debate in the Orthodox Union” regarding a Palestinian state.

But there won’t be any such debate soon, said Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinical arm of the Orthodox movement.

Agreeing to a Palestinian state “should be predicated on the fact that they should act like lawful members of the human community,” Dworken said. “And that hasn’t happened yet.”

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