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Selling Withdrawal Plan to U.S. Jews Poses Major Challenge to Community

March 30, 2005
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The hardest sell for American Jewish groups signed on to promote Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip might be other Jews. Many of the major Jewish religious streams, lobbying groups and civil rights groups are encouraging the Bush administration, lawmakers and opinion makers to maintain political support for Israel’s July 20 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

In Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, is working to help win approval of $200 million in aid money for the Palestinians when the U.S. Senate returns next week.

The U.S. House of Representatives already has approved the cash.

“AIPAC is strongly supportive of aid to the Palestinians, provided the proper oversight is in place to ensure the money is not misspent,” said AIPAC spokesman Andrew Schwartz. “Congress is currently working on making sure that such oversight is in place.”

It should be smooth sailing, except that a coalition of Israeli settlers and their U.S. supporters are making themselves heard loud and clear. They are raising hard questions about the historic — and traumatic — removal of thousands of long-established Jewish settlers and whether their removal is worth the risks associated with turning over the region to the Palestinians.

The difficulty of the situation means having to explain the withdrawal to American Jews first of all, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s foreign policy umbrella body.

“It’s an internal issue, in that we educate people about what Israel is doing, why it’s doing it,” Hoenlein said. “The trauma is great.”

The conference’s own rocky path to endorsing disengagement reflects the divisions: It held back until late last year — almost a year after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the plan — when it issued a statement of qualified support.

On a recent mission to Israel, the group endorsed the plan more explicitly.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for the nation’s Jewish community relations councils, is taking measures to keep the shouting down to a civil discourse, said Martin Raffel, the acting executive director of the JCPA, which has endorsed the withdrawal.

“We’re urging that disagreement with policy be expressed in a civil manner, within Israel and within our community,” Raffel said.

Fierce opposition to the disengagement plan is a concern for the Reform movement, which has emerged as one of its most avid backers.

“We’re always concerned that a fairly small minority of Jews in the United States have a disproportionately loud voice,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“We have an obligation to make clear where the vast majority of Jews are. We must make sure that political leaders, opinion leaders have the right perspective.”

To that end, Saperstein is encouraging hundreds of Reform rabbis meeting this week in Houston at this year’s Central Conference of American Rabbis to tackle the issue.

“We will be urging our congregations to speak to elected officials, communicate with Israeli leaders and with this administration not to allow it to be distracted on issues that would undermine its clear, present support,” Saperstein said.

Much of the American Jewish opposition is being fueled by the Zionist Organization of America, and its president, Morton Klein, who scored an impressive victory last year when his group funded an advertising campaign in Israel that helped opponents of withdrawal win a Likud Party vote.

Klein calls the ZOA stance “anti-forced deportation,” and was behind an abortive effort in the House earlier this month — led by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) — to scuttle aid to the Palestinians altogether.

Meanwhile, the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has sent representatives to the United States to enlist support for their opposition to the withdrawal.

They focused especially on the Orthodox Union, which has not taken an official position. Many Orthodox Jews in America have family members in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and feel a particular empathy for those who will be uprooted.

Against such determined opposition, getting out the message of support is hard but necessary, said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“In any situation, those who are pro come out in the tens of thousands, those who are against come out in the hundreds of thousands. We need to find incentives for people to come out there,” said Foxman, whose group supports the disengagement

For some groups, supporting disengagement is so important that it trumps other issues on their agenda.

The Reform movement, for instance, encouraged the Shinui secular rights party — its closest ally in Israel’s parliament — to swallow its objections to funds for the fervently Orthodox and back Sharon’s budget, guaranteeing the government’s survival.

The Reform movement, which has long sought official recognition and funding for its programs in Israel, sees further funding for the fervently Orthodox, who oppose recognition of the Reform, as anathema to that goal.

Each organization is working its bailiwick: The ADL, which has a long-established presence in Israel, has focused on condemning calls for violent opposition in that country and soliciting pledges of moderation from settler supporters.

The American Jewish Committee, with its extensive ties to international leaders, is mustering overseas support for the transition.

In Washington, support for disengagement has created an unlikely alliance between AIPAC and the dovish pro-Israel groups that work the Hill, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum — although there are substantive differences over the details.

AIPAC and the dovish pro-Israel lobby groups disagree over what conditions should be attached to the $200 million in aid for the Palestinians.

AIPAC was behind an effort to remove the presidential waiver, which traditionally is attached to such bills, meaning every dollar must be subject to congressional review.

Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum want the Senate to restore the waiver, and make sure it makes the final version that lands on Bush’s desk for his signature.

“Adding new conditions on aid — and eliminating the president’s authority to waive them — sends the Palestinians a message that the U.S. Congress seeks to thwart the president’s efforts to assist them,” Seymour Reich, president of the Israel forum, said this week in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Another difference is over Israel’s continued settlement activity. Peace Now sharply criticized Israel’s recent announcement that it would move ahead with an old plan to build 3,500 new units in Ma’aleh Adumim, a West Bank settlement that serves as a bedroom community for Jerusalem.

Others say Israel is not obliged to freeze settlements until the Palestinians make good on their own commitment to dismantle terrorist groups.

Controversy over the Ma’aleh Adumim expansion underscores another task for Jewish organizations backing disengagement — reminding non-Jewish leaders of Israel’s sacrifice.

“The risks inherent in what Israel is doing, I don’t think people appreciate it,” said Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents. “It’s taken for granted. We have to remind people what’s involved.”

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