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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2001 / 10 Teves, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Will American Jews find their voice as Jerusalem is carved up? -- SINCE THE Oslo peace accords were signed seven years ago, American Jewish skeptics about the peace process have often been put in the impossible position of opposing the government of the State of Israel. That is not a strategy that has ever succeeded.

It was one thing to take a position in support of the positions of the democratically elected leaders of Israel when it was braving the brickbats of the Jewish left, as well as the media and the U.S. government. But when Israelís leaders decided to give the Arabs and Washington what they had been asking for, then those American friends of Israel who disagreed were left isolated.

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin grudgingly posed for a handshake with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and President Clinton, he was in a position to mobilize American Jewish leaders and organizations as cheerleaders for his decision. Those who dissented were left muttering on the margins of American Jewish life.

But current Prime Minister Ehud Barak should be under no illusion that he is in in the same position as his predecessor.

As Barak waffles over the details of President Clintonís "bridging proposals" designed to bring about a peace treaty with the Palestinians, he is in a much weaker position to demand American Jewish support than Rabin was in 1993. Barak should not be surprised to discover the strength of American Jewish opposition to Clintonís terms. Why is that so?

The first reason is that unlike Rabin, who had three years left in his term when he signed Oslo, Barak has less than five weeks before he must face the Israeli electorate in a special election for prime minister. Barakís coalition in the Knesset collapsed nearly six months ago, and he has governed without a parliamentary majority ever since.

Barak and his supporters say that any accord he signs now will be put to the test by the voters. But if the voters reject this agreement ó and the pollsters in Israel say they will ó then anything Barak does now will hamper the freedom of action of his successor.

To put it mildly, the legitimacy of any agreement signed under these circumstances is questionable.

If Israelis give Barak (who campaigned in 1999 pledging never to divide Jerusalem) a thumping and elect the Likudís Ariel Sharon ó who has pledged not to accept Clintonís plan no matter what Barak does ó Israel will be placed under intolerable pressure to knuckle under by international forces who care nothing about Israeli democracy. That explains why Israelís nonpartisan Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein has told Barak that negotiating under these circumstances is unethical.

The second and even more telling reason why American Jews will not support Barakís current push is explained by the Israeli concessions Clinton has delineated as the price of an agreement. Going beyond even the generous concessions offered by Barak at Camp David last July, Clinton has called for a tearing apart of the city of Jerusalem, with all Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem being part of Arafatís Palestine, including most of the Old City.

The Palestinians would get the Temple Mount, while Israel would retain a tenuous hold on the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, with Arafat having the ability to put a stranglehold on these Jewish remnants. Instead of just the neighborhood of Gilo being under Arab fire, virtually all of Jewish Jerusalem would be transformed into the battleground it was prior to its unification in June 1967.

Given the emotional and spiritual cost of these concessions, as well as the fact that Israelís military is convinced that the whole plan undermines Israelís security, it is unlikely that Barak can muster a majority of the Knesset or the electorate to ratify such an agreement.

If so, why should he expect American Jews to applaud him for giving up the most sacred spot in Judaism for a treaty that few think the Palestinians have any interest in keeping? The Clinton plan is far more likely to enable the Palestinians to continue the conflict on less advantageous terms for Israel than it is to end it.

Even more, in discarding the unity of Jerusalem, Barak is doing something that will impact more than merely his slim chances of re-election. While it is important to remember that these decisions must be made by the people of Israel and not those in the Diaspora, Clinton has asked Barak to give up part of the heritage of every Jew, no matter where they live. While that may not entitle American Jews to a vote in the February election, it ought to mean that Israeli prime ministers should not act precipitously or without the clear consensus of the Jewish people before taking such a step.

While all Jews long for peace for Israel, to pretend that support for the idea of peace mandates acquiescence to the partition of Jerusalem and renouncing Jewish rights to the Temple Mount is nonsense. A Jewish consensus in favor of the Clinton plan does not exist. Unlike the opposition to Oslo, American Jewish revulsion at Clintonís plan is not limited to the right. It cuts across the religious denominations and political orientation of American Jewry.

It is still possible, if not probable, that Clintonís plan will be buried by Arafatís maximalism. Should a treaty be signed, and then, if Israelís voters accept the Clinton plan by re-electing Barak, those who oppose it here will have to accept their verdict.

But in the weeks leading up to that vote, American Jews should not be shy about telling our Israeli friends and the U.S. government what they think about the Clinton plan. Barak should know that he cannot count on being able to round up the usual suspects of Jewish organizational life to beat down criticism. And Israelis should know that if they reject Barak and thus expose themselves to new pressure from the United States and the United Nations, then the full weight of American Jewry will be brought to bear to back up their refusal to accept these concessions.

American Jews should also let President Clinton know that we think his proposals are harmful to Israel, and that this lame-duck push for a treaty is not a heroic stand for peace, but an egotistical campaign aimed at creating a "legacy" that the Jewish people will pay for in blood. Clintonís last-minute Jerusalem power play should also be seen as his latest attempt to interfere in Israeli politics by seeking to give a boost to his favorite politician in what he treats as a Hebrew-speaking "banana republic."

Similarly, the incoming administration of President-elect George W. Bush should be sent a clear message that it will get no honeymoon from friends of Israel if Bush decides to pick up Clintonís plan and make it his own after Jan. 20. If he goes back on his word to respect Israel's democratic process, then he will be sending a dangerous signal about the direction his foreign policy will take.

History will judge all the players in the current Middle East negotiations. Those of us observing the drama from the sidelines here in America should wonder what Jewish history will think of us if we are silent while Jerusalem is carved up. The circumstances have changed since September 1993, when most of us felt constrained to hold our tongues. The final decision will not be ours, but it is incumbent on those of us who care about Israel to make our voices heard while the outcome is still in the balance.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin