The “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace has just gotten off the ground — but it’s taking Jewish groups on divergent courses.
In the latest sign of the ferment the plan is causing in the Jewish community, several leaders of the national Jewish federation system endorsed it in a letter to Congressional leaders on April 29.
The action apparently came in response to letters expressing concern with aspects of the plan that were sent by many members of Congress to President Bush on April 30 in an effort backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby.
The April 29 letter from 14 philanthropists illustrates the extent to which the road map has pressed Jewish buttons. Many of the signatories are philanthropists who do not commonly enter the political fray and are current or former activists in the federation system, an institution that is deliberately nonpartisan.
The formal presentation of the road map on April 30 intensified the split in the Jewish community about the plan’s merits and flaws, and the extent to which Jews should present a unified front on the issue.
The road map calls for a “final and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by 2005,” which will include “an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel.”
The plan calls for the Palestinian Authority to dismantle terrorist groups, clearly accept Israel’s right to exist and enact a clean, functioning democracy, among other steps.
Israel, in turn, must end its settlement enterprises in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, withdraw from most of the territories and commit itself to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Left-leaning groups like Americans for Peace Now have sent letters to Congress supporting the road map, while mainstream ones have expressed concerns.
Meanwhile, the hawkish Zionist Organization of America has launched a grassroots campaign urging activists to write letters to President Bush opposing the road map.
“Bush’s ‘road map’ plan will lead to the creation of a Palestinian Arab terrorist state,” the group’s action alert reads.
The tension surrounding the road map was highlighted at a general meeting of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations on April 30.
Chairman Mortimer Zuckerman — who recently penned a broadside against the road map in U.S. News and World Report, which he publishes — cited the plan’s perceived pitfalls, such as its failure to demand tangible results from the Palestinian Authority, according to participants at the closed-door session.
And Ronald Lauder, a past Presidents Conference chairman, encouraged a unified Jewish stance on the issue, but did not specify the position.
In response, Seymour Reich, another past chairman of the Presidents Conference, praised the road map’s positive potential and urged respect for the diversity of Jewish opinion on the issue.
For his part, James Tisch, chairman of the board of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella and the man elected last week as the Presidents Conference’s next chairman, distanced himself from the federation leaders’ recent letter to Congress supporting the plan.
“That letter does not reflect in any way UJC policy,” said Tisch, who faced off against one of its signatories, Alan Solomont, chairman of Boston’s Jewish federation, in a CNN interview April 30 about Jewish debate over the road map.
Tisch, who will be the first person to chair both the Conference of Presidents and the federation system at the same time, told JTA the boundaries between his roles will stay intact.
“When I speak for the Conference of Presidents, I speak reflecting the consensus view of the conference, and UJC has a voice within the Conference of Presidents,” said Tisch, whose UJC position will end in November.
Meanwhile, signatories of the letter backing the road map say the letter represents their personal positions, not the positions of their organizations.
“We are still all individuals, and we have our own thoughts and feelings,” said Marvin Lender, former president of the United Jewish Appeal, who helped put together the letter.
“The people I know who really are passionately involved are people who tend to have positions in organizations,” said signatory Karen Shapira, vice chairwoman of UJC.
The federation leaders’ letter begins as follows: “We are writing to express our concern over recent efforts to sidetrack implementation of the ‘road map,’ which the Bush administration has developed as a tool for helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We believe that the road map provides Israel with a distinct opportunity to escape the bloody status quo of the past two and a half years,” it continues. “It offers a broad outline to detailed security arrangements that will ensure efforts to end Palestinian terrorism, while providing the necessary political context that will lead to an effective and safe implementation of the two-state solution.”
Lender said the letter was prompted by the signatories’ recognition that the road map was about to be presented.
“This is an opportunity, a moment in time,” he said.
“It’s not going to happen because of the Quartet,” Lender said, referring to the collaboration among the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia to produce the plan.
“It will happen because President Bush takes a personal interest in this, and I want” President Bush “to know that there are those of us in the community that would encourage him to do this,” Lender said.
But AIPAC appeared to figure into the decision as well. The letter it supports, signed by 88 senators and 313 representatives, affirms the principles of Bush’s June 24, 2002 speech, which won broad Jewish approval.
In that speech, Bush called for new Palestinian leadership not compromised by terrorism and a Palestinian state under a transparent, democratic government that will live in peace next to Israel.
Israeli officials say the road map diverges from the Bush speech by dropping the president’s apparent belief that the Palestinians must first show they are serious about ending terrorism and making peace before Israel makes concessions.
In addition, Israeli officials fear the plan’s timetable undermines the idea that progress from one stage to the next should depend on each side’s performance, not a schedule.
“Many are urging you to short-circuit this process and to focus on timelines, rather than benchmarks of real performance,” the Senate version of the AIPAC-backed letter reads.
The “AIPAC letter appears to be the culmination of a variety of Jewish organizations and leaders who have been vocal in opposing aspects of the road map,” Lender said.
Still, he added, his letter is not incompatible with the position of groups that have questioned the road map. It simply asks the nation’s leadership to use the road map to revive the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he said.
“It’s not a treaty,” said Joel Tauber, signatory of the philanthropists’ letter and former chair of the UJC’s executive committee. “It’s a road map, and there will be detours along the way.”
The parties can work out the details along the way, but they should at least begin the process, he said.
“To attack it before it’s even begun I think would be counter- productive, not only to this peace negotiation but to the overall Mideast strategy of this administration,” Tauber said.
For its part, AIPAC appeared to question the distinction between its agenda and the federation member’s letter.
“What exactly is the goal of the letter? Is it to endorse Palestinian
statehood for the sake of a peace process in name only?” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar asked. “We are not among those who uncritically endorse a road map to statehood whether or not the Palestinians meet their commitments to end terrorism.”
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