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U.S. Jews grapple with shifting reality on Syria


WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (JTA) — In 1993, American Jews slowly came to accept the reality that Israel was making peace with Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, which was long thought of as Israel’s enemy No. 1.

Now, nearly seven years later, they are grappling with another major shift as Israel negotiates a deal with Syria.

For more than 30 years, American Jews have been repeatedly told by Israeli politicians and generals that the Golan Heights could not be handed over to Syria without endangering the Jewish state’s security.

But that mantra is changing as Israel has entered the highest-level talks it has ever held with Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said the framework of a peace deal — including the withdrawal from a substantial chunk of the Golan — could be reached within two months.

Faced with intense opposition at home, Barak also has his work cut out for him garnering support among American Jews.

That support could prove critical if any deal becomes dependent — as it most likely will — on billions of dollars of U.S. funding.

Poll numbers show that until now, American Jews have overwhelmingly opposed an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan as part of a deal with Syria.

In the American Jewish Committee’s 1999 survey of American Jewish opinion — released prior to Barak’s election and while no public talks with Syria were occurring — nearly 40 percent said Israel should not give up any of the Golan; 32 percent said only a small part of it should be given up; and 23 percent said some of the land should be given to Syria. Only 4 percent said most of it should be given up, while a minuscule 2 percent said all of it should be surrendered.

But those numbers do not necessarily predict future views.

The American Jewish community “on this issue takes its cues directly from the Israeli government,” David Singer, the AJCommittee’s director of research, said, adding that the 1999 survey “tells you nothing about what American Jews will do if there is a peace agreement.”

Despite past — and current — opposition to giving up the Golan among many American Jews and Israelis, some observers believe that such a move would still not be as shocking as Yitzhak Rabin’s first halting handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993.

Asserting there is “an adjustment” going on in with regard to the Golan Height, Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said, “I think Israelis and American Jews found the development of the Oslo accords more stinging” than any decision to relinquish a part or the entire Golan.

Raffel, whose group is the umbrella for local Jewish community relations councils, said he has found from discussions with people around the country that there has been a “gradual accommodation” of the reality, because talks with Syria have been held under the last four prime ministers of Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party who held secret contacts with Syria through cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, now the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“People recognize the importance of the negotiations and accept the reality of it,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, who issued a statement along with Lauder welcoming the beginning of talks in December.

Although people still clearly have concerns about an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Hoenlein said, he has not seen the “extremist statements or rhetoric” that were heard back in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo accords.

Matthew Dorf, director of government and public affairs for the American Jewish Congress, summed up the view of many when he said, “If there is an agreement, I don’t think you are going to find too many people cheering that Israel is giving back the Golan. But what they will be cheering is peace on Israel’s northern border.”

Still, despite Barak’s military background and his pledge not to endanger Israel’s security, some American Jews remain suspicious.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, asked: “Why, Mr. Barak, are you changing after 30 years?”

“I’m not ready to accept that he has such a master plan that everything fits in,” he said of Barak’s negotiating strategy.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, predicted that Barak will have a hard time generating support in the United States because the majority of Israelis at this point, according to polls, oppose giving up the Golan.

“Barak will have a difficult time convincing American Jews to lobby against the wishes of the clear majority of the Israeli people who do not want to surrender the Golan Heights,” said Klein, who added that his group has already met with members of Congress, urging them not to not give any aid to Syria if there is a deal.

Klein said his group also plans to take out newspaper ads next week, when the talks are scheduled to resume. The ads liken Syrian President Hafez Assad to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a pariah in the eyes of Israel and the United States.

Both Jewish opponents and supporters of the talks are galvanizing their forces because they recognize that the political and economic backing of the administration and Congress will be key to an Israeli-Syrian agreement.

“The political struggle in Washington will be ferocious because we will soon reach the hour of destiny,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, North America.

With that struggle in mind, Hirsch and other American Reform leaders have launched a campaign to demonstrate to the Israeli government and public that the “vast majority” of American Jews are throwing their support behind the current talks.

On Monday, more than 200 Reform rabbis and activists met with Israeli diplomats at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and all of the Jewish state’s consulates around the country.

They delivered an open letter to Barak saying that the protest by an estimated 120 people during the talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va., “reflects only a small minority of American Jews and that the vast majority of American Jews strongly support your efforts to forge a peace accord with Syria.”

The demonstration of support was spurred not only by the protest in Shepherdstown, but also by the belief that supporters of the peace process were too slow to voice support back in 1993, allowing opponents to control the “political discourse even though they are a minority of those both in Israel and the United States,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, also said it was important for supporters of the peace process not to remain silent at a time when opponents have an easy time criticizing an agreement that does not exist.

“It is incumbent on the center to, at the very least, deliver a message which says that we are a community supporting the prime minister in his leading Israel down the road to a secure peace with Syria,” he said, adding that his own group is still mulling over how to voice its support for the talks.

Although some American Jews are clearly putting their faith in Barak, others say a campaign to educate Jewish — and non-Jewish — Americans will be essential.

Dorf of the AJCongress said his group is planning an educational forum for early February in Washington to explain the reasons why Barak and his negotiating team, which is mostly made up of former top generals, believe the time is ripe to reach a peace deal with Syria.

For its part, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, is chatting up Capitol Hill staffers and journalists in an effort to explain Barak’s belief that Israel can withdraw from the Golan Heights while strengthening Israel’s security, and how the move would help U.S. strategic interests in the region.

AIPAC, which is preparing for a tough battle to secure billions in aid for Israel to support a deal, also put out a fact sheet wit the clear message that war is costlier than peace.

Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents has so far signed up 90 people from its member groups for a trip to Israel in February, which will include a tour of the Golan.

It will be important, he said, to provide people with information in order to “to keep the community together” when the action shifts to Congress.

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