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Jewish World Review May 12, 2003 / 10 Iyar, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

Redefining ‘Pro-Israel’

American Jews who lobby for pressure on Israel are pushing the envelope | At a recent meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the members of this ill-defined but prominent group were discussing the Middle East "road map."

During this gathering, where pro and con views about the plan put forward by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia were aired, Ronald S. Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund, is said to have spoken up preaching the need for a "unified" community stand on the issue.

Lots of luck.

Lauder's pious statement notwithstanding, the chances for unity on this issue or any other of any substance is, of course, nil.

Composed as it is of groups that span the political spectrum from right to left (not to mention quite a few that should just be labeled "confused"), these organizations are as incapable of unity as the United Nations.

Jews have a long history of disunity that has even persisted in the face of outside threats. So there is nothing unique or particularly remarkable about the fact that the "major" American Jewish groups — or Israelis, for that matter — don't all agree about the road map toward peace.

Over the course of the last 20 years, both sides of the left-right divide over Israel have done their best to shut up or marginalize their opponents. Most of these efforts have been disreputable. But that said, there have always been perceived limits on what should be considered legitimate "pro-Israel" activity.

Criticizing Israeli governments is certainly no longer taboo, be they of the left or right. Nor should it be. But if there was any "red line" that mainstream groups refused to cross, it was that no one ought to encourage foreign governments, even the United States, to place pressure on Israel to do things its democratically elected government was opposed to doing.

The collapse of Oslo after the Palestinians rejected peace in the summer of 2000 and answered Israel's offer of a settlement with war and terror ended the debate here over these issues. Two consecutive electoral landslides for the Likud Party quieted much of the old, tired arguments about settlements and territories.

But the triumphant end of America's war in Iraq may change yet again the political and diplomatic equation of the Middle East.

The announcement of the road map and the appointment of what is supposed to be a reformed government is providing the Palestinians with yet another opportunity to have the Europeans, and maybe even the United States, squeeze Israel for their benefit.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is attempting to finesse this situation by agreeing in principle to the road map, but insisting that it be revised to ensure that the Palestinians comply with the demand to cease violence and crush the terrorist organizations within their ranks.

Moreover, all this is happening while Mahmoud Abbas, the much-ballyhooed new Palestinian prime minister selected to bypass Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, is being clearly outmaneuvered by the old terrorist. Ze'ev Schiff of Ha'aretz reported this week that the key demand that all of the various P.A. armed groups be united under one command is already being flouted.

Arafat — and not Abbas — will still have direct control of several of these "security" organizations that have been used to carry out terror attacks on Israelis in the past. And the week since Abbas' confirmation has, predictably, brought more terror to Israel.

So, given these difficult circumstances, just how far should American Jews who believe in the road map go in order to help it succeed?

To that end, a number of prominent and wealthy American Jews signed a statement urging President Bush to ignore "recent efforts to sidetrack implementation of the 'road map.' " This was widely seen as a slap not only against Sharon's maneuvering, but also a clear swipe at a widely supported congressional letter sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That letter urged Bush to concentrate not on any arbitrary timetable to reward the Palestinians with statehood, but on Arab compliance with the president's previous demands for reform and the end of terror.

It should be stipulated that the supporters of that letter are, without a doubt, motivated by love of Israel and a sincere belief that pushing it to make concessions is in the best interests of the Jewish state.

But let's be honest. The language used by the supporters of the road map in their letter was a thinly veiled green light for pressure on Israel to do what its people have clearly voted not to do in the last two elections: go back to the policy of concessions.

No one should question their right as Americans to speak their minds. But those who question the propriety of Jews lobbying the president not to support Israel, but to force its government to accept someone else's idea of security, are not attacking democracy but defending it.

What is at stake here is not the right of free speech for American Jews or another round of left-right mutual delegitimization. Rather, it is a question of what gives a group of well-heeled Jewish philanthropists the chutzpah to tell an American president it is okay to twist the arm of an Israeli prime minister.

What is needed now is not a false unity, where we all pretend to agree, as is so often the case with our consensus-obsessed philanthropic organizations. We don't have to agree Sharon knows what he is doing, or that the road map is a good idea or a peril to the Jewish state, as many of us think it is.

What we need now is some humility from American Jews, including supporters and opponents of the latest peace plan. None of us can predict the dangers that lie ahead, but all of us know that past schemes for peace resulted in the catastrophe of the current war, which has left several hundred Jews dead.

We should seek to avoid actions that encourage Israel's terrorist enemies or those who seek to undermine its security, such as the leaders of the European Union and the United Nations. Though perhaps well-intentioned, the letter encouraging Bush to press ahead on the road map did not exhibit such humility. Its publication will hurt — not help — Israel's search for security.

I suspect the president knows this group does not speak for the majority of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who love Israel. But it was still a mistake made by people who ought to know better. Let's hope the people of Israel will not pay for the error.

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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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