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With Bush More Involved in Mideast, Group Finds Itself Back in the Center

June 3, 2005
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Long shunted to the dovish wing of the U.S. Jewish political spectrum, the Israel Policy Forum is making its way back to the center. In fact, IPF officials say, the group hardly moved. Instead, they say, the political landscape has shifted toward a group that has promoted close U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since the Oslo process was launched in 1993.

They cite a number of factors: a change in the Palestinian leadership; Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s commitment to leave the Gaza Strip, and the ensuing breach that has emerged in Israel and among Israel’s American Jewish supporters; and President Bush’s determination to push the peace process forward.

The IPF always has advocated a two-state solution, said Jonathan Jacoby, the group’s executive director, though in recent years that seemed a remote possibility because of the intifada and the seemingly insurmountable gulf between Israelis and Palestinians.

“What’s different now is that the Israeli government has a policy that both the American government and most American Jews are enthusiastic about,” he said.

What’s remarkable is that it’s a binational shift: The IPF, long seen as backing the Labor Party in Israel and top-heavy with Democrats in the United States, has cultivated close relations with both the Likud in Israel and Republicans here.

At its June 9 annual dinner in New York, the group is honoring Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — a prominent Likud member — and Gary Heiman, a leading fund-raiser for Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

The group’s most visible presence in recent weeks was a full-page ad it initiated in the Sunday New York Times, welcoming Sharon to Washington last week and praising him for his “courageous disengagement plan.”

The “victory” for the IPF is that it was just one of 27 signatories. Others include mainstream Jewish groups — the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Hadassah and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — as well as the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist streams.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella body that normally would publish such an ad, has a constitutional commitment to consensus and has been unable to overcome resistance from pro-settler constituents. Instead, the Conference of Presidents published a welcome message to Sharon that did not mention the Gaza withdrawal.

“When policies change, institutions sometimes lag in their ability to change,” Jacoby said. “It was easier for us to rally support for Sharon because we didn’t have to convince ourselves to change.”

The executive vice chairman of the conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, declined to respond.

The ad was a major breakthrough for the IPF. Two earlier efforts to garner community support for Bush since the intifada began in September 2000 — one in October 2001, after the president openly expressed support for a Palestinian state, and another in April 2003, when Mahmoud Abbas was named Palestinian Authority prime minister — were notable for the “formers” and “pasts” that appeared on the signature lists. The signatories were well-known Jews, but few of them held leadership positions at the time of signing.

By contrast, the recent New York Times ad featured only current leaders.

One U.S. Jewish official doubted the seriousness of the IPF’s move to the center.

“Does that support of Sharon include supporting the positions of the Israeli government on everything? On Jerusalem?” the official asked. “Or is it just on disengagement, just when it comes to Israel making a territorial concession, and when it comes to the other issues they’re going to break with them?”

In any case, signatories cautioned that their participation in the ad didn’t signify a new leadership role for IPF in the community.

“When there’s a vacuum and you step into the vacuum, you fill a role, but that doesn’t make them the new kid on the block,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. “They served an appropriate need and purpose.”

IPF officials said they don’t pretend to a leadership role in the community.

“We are a one-issue organization, to push forward the peace process and make sure that Washington is in the picture,” said Seymour Reich, IPF’s president.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the organization is edging back toward the American mainstream — not least in naming Reich to its top position earlier this year. Twice a chairman of the Presidents Conference, Reich is skilled at negotiating the breadth of the community.

That earned the IPF praise from Foxman.

“Seymour Reich is an activist leader,” Foxman said. “He has experience and he knows how to deal with media. That will serve IPF well.”

Since Reich came on board, the IPF has increased its activism in Congress, campaigning hard for direct financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority — a campaign that failed on Capitol Hill but won Bush’s backing last week.

A staffer in a senior congressional Democrat’s office confirmed that the IPF has established a presence on the Hill, calling the group “very helpful on policy,” though lacking anything near the political clout of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Another high-profile initiative is the IPF’s role in getting the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East off the ground in April. CALME enlisted dozens of prominent Jewish and Arab Americans, academics, businessmen and retired statesmen to call on Bush to actively pursue a two-state solution.

IPF also is going out of its way to demonstrate bipartisan bona fides in Israel and the United States.

Olmert, one of the most ardent backers of the Gaza withdrawal, is the first Likud minister to address the group.

Heiman, a member of the IPF executive committee who last year attended a post-election Jewish leadership briefing with Condoleezza Rice — who at the time had just been nominated as secretary of state — said the shift was less remarkable than it seemed.

Heiman, who chaired the Bush campaign’s Jewish outreach last year in Cincinnati and whose Standard Textile Co. has plants in Israel and Jordan, recalled attending a debate in which Democrats argued that Bush, as a second-term president, was likely to pressure Israel harder.

“I nodded to myself and thought, Yeah, that’s right,” recalled Heiman — who thought it would be a good thing. “As a second-term president, he’ll be more engaged. I know that’s something a lot of people don’t want to hear; they want to hear that the administration is pro-Israel and will back Israel whatever its stance. But even if Israel is 80 percent right, it needs a little push where it’s wrong.”

David Twersky, international director for the AJCongress, said the old distinctions were breaking down.

“We’re at a very funny moment in Israel when Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon are more enthusiastic about withdrawal than Ehud Barak,” the former Labor Party prime minister who offered the Palestinians a generous peace deal in 2000 but now says he’s concerned that militants could take over in Palestinian areas. “We’re stuck with a hawks-versus-doves model, but it’s no longer useful.”

It confuses even the principals. Olmert recently told Heiman he was flattered that a liberal group like the IPF chose to honor him at its annual dinner, Heiman said.

“Ehud, I’m a Republican,” Heiman said he told him.

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