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The Speech Was Nice, Groups Say; Now How Do We Implement Vision?

July 1, 2002
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Most American Jewish leaders were heartened by President Bush’s demand for extensive reforms in the Palestinian Authority, and are wondering how they can help translate that vision into reality.

Primarily, Jewish leaders said, they can hammer home Bush’s message in a public relations campaign to the American public, and can lobby legislators to give substance to the president’s vision through congressional resolutions.

In his June 24 speech on Mideast policy, Bush called for serious political and economic reform of the Palestinian Authority and strongly implied that Palestinians should oust Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Bush said he believes a provisional Palestinian state could be established within three years, but predicated it on the Palestinians implementing far-reaching reforms.

Having feared that Bush would endorse the speedy creation of a “provisional” Palestinian state, most Jewish groups were gratified by how strongly Bush backed Israel’s position.

Once the impact of the speech sank in, however, analysts pointed out that it did not contain a road map toward ending the conflict.

Bush’s goals are important, analysts said, but the speech contained no detailed checklist of steps to accomplish them, nor initiatives to enact the required reforms.

American Jewish leaders still are unsure how to proceed, but hope they can help fill in some of the details by building support for Bush’s platform and seeking congressional measures to capitalize on rising anti-Arafat sentiment.

Before the speech, stories had circulated of a split between, on one side, the White House and Pentagon — which wanted to condemn Arafat — and a more conciliatory State Department on the other.

With the State Department responsible for following through on Bush’s vision, Jewish leaders want assurances that Secretary of State Colin Powell and his staff will adhere to the goals Bush enumerated.

“There is an interest in locking down the president’s policy,” one Democratic congressional staffer said.

Congressional and Jewish officials said Congress could take the lead by passing resolutions supporting various aspects of Bush’s speech, in hopes of preventing the State Department from moving the bar to appease an apprehensive international community.

Calls are mounting for Powell to testify before Congress, so that his support for Bush’s vision can be gauged.

Since Bush’s speech was short on details, Jewish groups hope congressional initiatives can provide standards to judge Palestinian compliance with demands for accountable government, transparent finances and anti-terror action.

“We need to make sure there are some carrots and sticks out there,” said Sarah Stern, national policy coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America. Among the ideas being floated are an oversight committee and a biannual report on the progress of Palestinian reforms.

Guidelines for American action in the Middle East are likely to be more pro-Israel if they come from Congress than from the White House or State Department.

But efforts are advancing slowly as legislators wait to see what the Bush administration and other players do next.

“Right now, the administration has a window to come up with an implementation plan,” the Democratic congressional staffer said. “If they continue to fiddle around, Congress will step into the breach.”

One American Jewish official said Bush’s speech established a “new baseline” for how the government views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The role of the American Jewish community, the official said, will be to push the new policy home to the American people through a continued public relations campaign.

Jewish leaders said that Israel continues to be besieged in the media, and that they need to continue efforts to combat what they consider anti-Israel rhetoric.

However, some American Jewish leaders warn that they should remain behind the scenes. They fear that high- profile action by American Jewish groups could be perceived as gloating or could lend credence to those who argue that the pro-Israel lobby in Washington dictated Bush’s speech.

It’s also unclear how much of a role American Jewish groups can play in selling Bush’s plan to skeptical European and Arab leaders.

In a conference call with American Jewish leaders just after Bush’s speech, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked Jewish leaders to use their contacts to help rally the international community behind Bush’s plan.

“Many of us have contacts with foreign officials,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which hosted the conference call. “We should be calling and saying, ‘This is an important opportunity.’ “

But the heads of the organizations that most likely would lead such an effort said it won’t be easy.

“Clearly, it’s an uphill struggle,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “We will try to do the best we can.”

Harris said he has been following the international media, and has seen some support for Bush’s plan only in England and Germany. He believes other states will be unwilling to join calls for Arafat’s ouster.

“The Europeans are not going to change their tune because the U.S. administration takes a new tack this week,” he said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he believes European Jewish groups won’t succeed in promoting Bush’s plan.

“In the real world, the European Jewish communities are having a hard enough time selling support for Israel in general,” he said. “They have not been able to influence decision-makers.”

Foxman said it’s the job of the Bush administration, not the Jewish communities, to sell the president’s plan.

“We have to see ourselves in realistic terms,” he said. “We are not as powerful as our enemies claim we are.”

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