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January 21, 1998 / 23 Tevet, 5758

The dance of symbols

Bibi and Yasser's Washington visits are exposing shifts in American Jewish opinion

By Josh Pollack

FOLLOWING THE ISSUANCE of an ambitious list of demands from the Israeli cabinet to the Palestinians, hopes and expectations for President Clinton's meetings this week with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have largely sputtered out. In recent weeks and days, Netanyahu's cabinet has declared a series of increasingly stringent requirements for the realization of Israeli obligations in the peace process, many of which are well known to be non-starters on the Palestinian side.

Bibi's approach appears to stem from a lack of faith in Yasser Arafat's ability or willingness to bring peace -- if Arafat cannot fulfill Israeli demands on extradition, guarantee five months of quiet, etc., the reasoning goes, then Israel cannot be held to its own end of the bargain. Bibi Netanyahu's skepticism towards the Oslo Accords will thus be vindicated, and Israel left with a strong hand.

Still, if peace in the Middle East isn't available this week in Washington, symbolism abounds. The usual suspects have run their full-page ads in the papers; this one attacks Clinton for pressuring Israel to take a softer line, that one praises him for his evenhandedness and commitment to moving negotiations forward.

But these rote gestures, like lack of movement in the peace process, are par for the course of late. Two more unusual events stand out that hint at substantial shifts, perhaps even a realignment, in Americans' feelings about the peace process. Let's look at them.

The first item was Bibi's choice of audience when rallying the troops upon his arrival Monday. There is nothing strange about this Prime Minister taking the opportunity to address American supporters, something he has been doing since his days as leader of the opposition. But in anticipation of his Tuesday meeting with the President, he chose to speak to a gathering of Voices United for Israel, a group of hawkish, conservative Christians and Jews. There, according to The New York Times, he was introduced to the audience by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the prominent televangelist and Clinton opponent. Afterward, meetings with leading Republican legislators and other conservative figures, including the Rev. Pat Robertson, filled his datebook.

The second fascinating event was the latest flip-flop from Miles Lerman, chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council, which administers the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Last week, Lerman had apparently agreed to the suggestion of fellow council member Aaron Miller, deputy to President Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, to invite Chairman Arafat to the Museum. Over the weekend, he reversed himself, citing concern for Jewish unity and a desire not to politicize the institution. In an interview with National Public Radio, he suggested that Arafat could come to the Museum, but not expect the honors of a head of state -- not, at least, until a peace agreement with Israel had been finalized.

On Monday, he switched back. "Ideas were given to me that by extending a full status visit to Arafat that we will divide the constituency of the museum, (that) the Jewish community is divided on this issue, (that) half of them will be blessing me and half of them will be cursing me," he told The Washington Post. "The more I think about it the more I think the visit of Arafat to this museum will serve a good purpose for peace."

WHAT DO THESE VIGNETTES tell us? Let's start with Bibi and the televangelists. The donations of culturally conservative evangelical Christians to Israel are widely reported to be on the rise, to the point that they now comprise a significant chunk of the UJA's annual revenues. Among traditional givers, their motives are considered somewhat suspect. Many Israel supporters winced when, a few years ago, prominent neoconservative Norman Podhoretz felt compelled to declare Pat Robertson acceptable by dint of his support for Israel, despite the appearance in his writings of traditionally antisemitic references to a conspiracy of "international bankers," albeit stripped of explicit references to their Jewishness.

Why do evangelicals support Israel so strongly? The State of Israel appears to have been successfully integrated into their system of eschatology. Jerry Falwell, for one, has stated that the end times will soon come about, heralded by the construction of the Third Temple. Christian prophecy foresees an apocalyptic war, culminating in a battle at Meggido, or Armageddon, in northern Israel. It is probably safe to say that evangelical support for Israel stems as much from the urge to help the good guys win this impending war-to-end-all-wars as from the desire to spread sympathetic feelings towards Christianity in the Jewish state.

These religious ideas surely inform their vision of the peace process. While not averse to peace in the abstract, they believe that war is inevitable, and are unlikely to invest much hope in the Oslo Accords. Bibi Netanyahu, seeking friends in the American electorate who will outflank President Clinton, finds them a natural fit. Unfortunately for Bibi, these people, along with their Jewish friends, were never Clinton-Gore voters in the first place.

How does the rest of American Jewry think? Let's look at the Holocaust Museum incident more closely. Some were satisfied with Chairman Lerman's rejection of the tour-with-honors that Chairman Arafat had expected. Skeptics noted that Arafat probably had seen the visit less as an opportunity to reach out to Jews than to burnish his credentials with a show of public recognition, as is his habit, and at the expense of the Museum's dignity. "We'll shake his hand," said one. "We don't have to kiss it."

Others, including conservative columnist Mona Charen, were more strident, reflecting a fundamental pessimism and mistrust of the peace process: "This is a man who calmly ordered the murder of Israeli schoolgirls just a few years ago. If he toured the museum, it would be only to take notes."

But these voices seem to have been the exception, not the rule. Liberal columnist Richard Cohen expressed disappointment, suggesting that Arafat might have learned something from the trip, and that the rejection of the tour reflected the demonization of the former terrorist leader as a Nazi. "The Holocaust museum memorializes the past," he wrote. "It need not, however, live in it."

Members of the board not consulted before Lerman rejected the visit were said to be angry. The Washington Post reported board member Thomas Buergenthal as characterizing the decision as "stupid," and saying, "I'm one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz, and I just don't want to be part of this decision."

Telephone calls from unnamed administration officials may have made a strong contribution to Lerman's change of heart, but, according to The Post's account, board members reported that the museum "had been flooded with telephone calls and faxes, many of them from Holocaust survivors, urging that Arafat be given a chance to learn at first hand about one of the defining events of Jewish history."

This spontaneous, grassroots reaction suggests that the liberal-to-moderate mainstream of American Jewry -- defined for convenience here as Jews who would consider voting for the Democratic presidential ticket in 2000 -- continue to see possibilities in a peace process involving Yasser Arafat.

It is doubly meaningful in light of other events. Prime Minister Netanyahu's support among American Jews is generally believed to have eroded with the eruption last year of a divisive interdenominational squabble in Israel. Should the official Orthodox state rabbinate, supported by Bibi, prevail, the result may be a split in the Jewish people unprecedented in modern times. Orthodox rabbis seek to delegitimize, in Israel, the conversion rites of American Jewish mainstream, rendering the authenticity of future generations of American Jews suspect in the eyes of the Israeli state.

GIVEN THE ILL FEELINGS this issue has brought to the surface, whether American Jews will mobilize to defend Netanyahu against pressure from the United States government is now genuinely in question. To judge by Monday's events, the average American Jewish voter may also have a conception of the peace process considerably closer to Bill Clinton's than Bibi Netanyahu's.

What that might mean for the peace process is unclear. President Clinton, perhaps averse to testing these waters, by all accounts did not push Bibi to alter his hard line during their Tuesday meeting in the Oval Office. But Yasser Arafat is scheduled for the same honor on Thursday, and will presumably be savvy enough to take up the renewed Holocaust Museum invitation and make a strong impression on American Jewry. For the most part, they are willing to give him a hearing.

The picture is changing, and the week is not over yet.


Previous articles by Josh Pollack:
1/7/98: Iran's new opening to America
12/28/97: Arabic lessons are no substitute for Poli Sci: the dangers of the territorial fixation

Josh Pollack is a contributing editor at JWR.

©1998, Jewish World Review