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Will U.S. Jewry Keep Pace As Israel Cautiously Pursues New Peace Effort?

June 4, 2003
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It may seem that in the course of just a few weeks, many in the Bush administration and in Israel stopped on a dime, turned and began moving swiftly toward the notion of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

But lagging behind are many leaders of the organized American Jewish community, still skeptical of the new Palestinian leadership and harboring vivid memories of a similar track a decade earlier that not only failed but turned into two and a half years of terror and violence.

Publicly, most Jewish organizations support the “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace that President Bush is promoting in his Middle East travels this week and at his summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.

But privately, there is much skepticism about what will transpire in the coming weeks and months, with fears that Israel will be forced to make too many concessions or that Palestinians will get a state without first cracking down on terrorism.

The goal, many say, is to make these concerns heard quietly, while not standing in the way of progress.

Mainstream Jewish leaders who have reservations say they are not worried that they will be viewed as impediments for peace. Instead, they say they are on the same wavelength as Israel’s government, supporting the process — hesitantly.

“The center, I am convinced, has already shifted in support for Sharon and Bush,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“If it’s good enough for Sharon and good enough for Israelis, then the American Jewish community will embrace it.”

But to some, supporting the Israeli government means more than backing what is said publicly.

Some Jewish leaders feel it is up to them to say what many in Israel, including Sharon, are thinking but are not saying. They say political pressure may have forced Sharon to back something he truly does not believe in, and it is the Jewish community’s job to balance the support Israel is expressing with voices of caution.

This is not the first time the organized American Jewish community faces the prospect of suddenly embracing a peace process after years of echoing hard-line Israeli positions with respect to the Palestinians.

When the Oslo process evolved in the mid-1990s, some prominent Jewish organizations, including the umbrella Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, were accused of not fully backing the process the Israeli government had adopted.

Indeed, in 1995, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin chastised Jewish leaders for not getting on board and supporting the Oslo peace process as much as it aided Israel through tougher times.

Supporters of Oslo called it the “Diaspora lag” — the fact the American Jews were not supporting something that was being viewed positively in Israel.

The Oslo process “was very difficult for the Jewish community to digest,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Our mistrust in Yasser Arafat proved to be well-placed.”

Raffel said that American Jews can become more pessimistic than some in Israel because they do not see the violence up close each day, and therefore are not as pragmatic about the need to embrace any movement in the peace process.

“Maybe the fact that we don’t live it as acutely as Israelis do, sometimes we have a tendency to be less pragmatic or more idealistic,” he said.

This time around, some Jewish leaders say they are once again skeptical.

But the difference is, some say, that skepticism is shared by Israel.

“Everybody is hesitant,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. “A lot of people have reservations because they see this as a very risky approach.”

Hoenlein and others say the 14 reservations about the road map that Israel submitted to the United States last month mirror the concerns they have been expressing for months, and there is still strong concern that Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, retains much of the control of the security system in the West Bank and Gaza.

Indeed, an Israeli Cabinet minister, Limor Livnat of Likud, meanwhile, told American Jewish leaders Tuesday that “your role now is to stand very firm” and to make sure that the Israeli government does not make concessions until the Palestinians have uprooted terrorism.

“You need to make sure” that Bush sticks to his ideology to uproot all terrorism in the world, “including of course the Palestinian infrastructure,” Livnat, who abstained from the Cabinet vote endorsing the road map, told a meeting of the Conference of Presidents.

There’s a decade’s worth of experience that makes American Jews fear the worst.

“If it’s hard for the community to be on board, it’s for good reason,” said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I don’t think the Jewish community will be that much ahead or behind Congress and public opinion.”

That worries some more dovish Jewish groups, who fear Jewish leaders may be reluctant to embrace a new process, when the last one burned Israel.

“The concern I have is if groups get wrapped up in the opposition to any talks of a return to diplomacy, and too tightly wound around denigrating the other side,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

He fears that Jewish groups, while technically on board, will not expend any political capital on supporting — and pushing — the peace process.

The question, others say, is whether Abbas and the Palestinians will follow through where they have not in the past.

If progress is made by the Palestinians, with terrorism especially coming to an end, there would be almost universal support among American Jews for a revived peace process, they say.

Even hawkish groups like the Zionist Organization of America say they will “openly and publicly support negotiations” if the environment is right, said the group’s national president, Morton Klein.

He said they would need to see Palestinian arrests of terrorists and other requirements before they would support the process.

Indeed, several Jewish leaders said they will be working in the weeks and months ahead to ensure that Palestinians and other partners are keeping the commitments stressed in the road map, because they fear the main problem with Oslo was that Palestinian compliance was not enforced.

“The role for the American Jewish community is to be skeptical and watch and move in when the Arabs are not fulfilling their commitments,” Amitay said.

Also on the agenda is setting the scene to entice the Palestinians to fulfill those commitments.

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, last month pushed for a provision in the State Department Authorization Act that would give substantial U.S. assistance to a Palestinian state, once it achieved a thorough peace.

“I think our role is to encourage our government to play a constructive role to facilitate an opportunity for peace,” Raffel said. That means finding international donors and other financial avenues to support the state.

“I only wish that we get to the point where money is needed,” he said.

For now, many American Jewish groups say they will take their cues from the Israeli government.

“Some of us sometimes lose sight of the fact that it’s their decision,” Foxman said. “It’s not our role to push them or to hold them back.”

But that is not a universal view. Klein, who opposed Oslo, said: “We think it’s a nonsensical policy to support any policy the Israeli government supports,” he said. “Israel has been making decisions based on hopes and dreams, not facts.”

Some left-wing Jewish groups, meanwhile, are working to ensure that Congress does not become

an impediment to peace either.

The prevailing notion is that the staunchly pro-Israel Congress could place restrictions on Bush’s ability to negotiate with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or mount pressure against the White House initiatives.

Tikkun, led by Rabbi Michael Lerner, was hoping to combat that threat by expressing an alternative picture

of American Jewry to Congress this week. The dovish organization mounted a “Teach-In” to educate lawmakers about alternative Jewish views on the Middle East, including support for the road map and an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

“We want to prevent an anti-Bush backlash, generated by AIPAC supporters in Congress, that attempts to undermine the president’s push toward concessions,” Lerner said.

The legislation is not expected to go anywhere.

And AIPAC dismisses the charge.

“For many out there, accepting the vision of peace laid out by President Bush and endorsed by Ariel Sharon would mean abandoning their lifelong crusades and coming to terms with their own irrelevance,” Rebecca Dinar, AIPAC’s spokeswoman, said, but declined further comment.

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