Jewish Groups Sit On Fence as John Kerry Readies Middle East Peace Framework

Wait-And-See Attitude Toward Marathon Talks

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By Ron Kampeas

Published February 04, 2014.
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(JTA) — As the Obama administration prepares to unveil a framework plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Jewish groups have responded by laying low.

In contrast to the noisy Iran sanctions contretemps between the administration and much of the pro-Israel community, the leading centrist Jewish groups have largely adopted a wait-and-see approach as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry works on the framework agreement.

The groups all publicly express support for Kerry’s efforts, but they have refrained from aggressive lobbying or commenting on news reports about purported details of the framework.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which usually takes the lead in framing community response to peace talks, has been quiet, congressional and administration insiders said.

“As we have since the beginning of the process, we continue to support Secretary Kerry’s diplomatic efforts to achieve a secure and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman said in a statement to JTA.

There are a number of reasons for the community’s relatively low profile. In addition to their focus on Iran, centrist groups do not want to prematurely weigh in on an anticipated proposal that has yet to see the light of day.

The muted response also echoes the approach taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has emphasized that he is receptive to Kerry’s efforts, even as he has suggested that Israel will not necessarily have to agree to all the elements of an American framework proposal.

In addition, the Obama administration has tried to head off concerns by stressing that it is developing the framework in close consultation with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, emphasizing that there will be no surprises.

At least 50 Jewish organizational leaders received a preview of some of the framework’s likely elements in a conference call last week with Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Jewish communal leaders offer varied assessments of the communal expectations of whether Kerry’s efforts will advance the cause of peace.

Martin Raffel, senior vice president at the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, said the community was invested in a successful outcome.

“The mainstream is overwhelmingly hopeful that Kerry will get to what they are trying to accomplish,” he said, “which is to get to a framework that the parties will agree to even if they have reservations, but there are sufficient grounds to build on.”

But Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, noted what he described as a widespread Jewish communal skepticism rooted in two decades of frustration.

“The skepticism is overwhelming on all sides, so now we’re waiting and seeing,” Foxman said, referring to attitudes within the organized Jewish community.

In a short radio commentary released Tuesday, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, applauded Kerry’s efforts.

Noting that advancing peace “isn’t for the faint-hearted,” Harris said, “Bravo, then, to Secretary of State John Kerry for his current effort.”

But Kerry’s efforts have met with outspoken opposition from the right, both in the American Jewish community and in Israel.

The Zionist Organization of America accused the Obama administration of turning itself into the Palestinian Authority’s “attorney and chief negotiator.”

Some right-wing members of Netanyahu’s Likud party and larger governing coalition have reacted with alarm to Kerry’s efforts.

Last month, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, was quoted by an Israeli newspaper as privately telling colleagues that Kerry had an “incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling.” Yaalon later apologized if Kerry was offended by the remarks attributed to him.

More recently, a Knesset member from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, Moti Yogev, suggested that Kerry was driven by anti-Semitic and anti-Israel feelings. His statement was condemned by Jewish groups, including the ADL and AJC.

Tensions also flared recently between Kerry and Netanyahu. Israeli officials reacted with anger to Kerry’s warning in a speech last weekend that failure to arrive at a deal could give momentum to efforts to isolate and boycott Israel.

Netanyahu responded that “no pressure will cause me to concede the vital interests of the State of Israel,” while Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, called Kerry’s remarks “intolerable.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki shot back that Kerry opposes boycotts and simply was describing what was at stake, adding that the secretary of state “expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.” Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said on Twitter that the attacks on Kerry were “unfounded and unacceptable.”

The ADL weighed in with an open letter criticizing Kerry’s remark.

“Describing the potential for expanded boycotts of Israel makes it more, not less, likely that the talks will not succeed; makes it more, not less, likely that Israel will be blamed if the talks fail; and more, not less, likely that boycotts will ensue,” Foxman wrote.

Foxman’s letter did, however, express support for Kerry’s peace efforts and respect for his work.

Some of the likely elements of the framework that have been discussed in briefings and news reports would be warmly received by Jewish groups. According to participants in the off-the-record call with Indyk, the peace envoy suggested that the framework would include a call for recognition of Israel as a state of the Jewish people – a key Netanyahu demand that has been firmly rejected by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But in addressing delicate issues such as Jerusalem and refugees, the framework could draw objections from both sides. News reports have suggested that the framework would call for Jerusalem to be a shared capital and for Palestinian refugees and their descendants not to have the right to resettle in Israel, although the reliability of such reports is not clear.

The State Department has stressed that the framework is a work in progress and so even Indyk’s characterizations should not be considered final.

Jewish communal professionals say that sensitive compromises likely to be embedded in an agreement would require community consideration, particularly on Jerusalem.

“Most organizations have passed a number of resolutions on these issues,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “If what comes out in the framework differs from that, we want to engage with our community in a thoughtful examination of where we are now.”

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said his group would push back against anything less than full Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.

“Our position is very clear,” he said. “The O.U. is flat opposed to any proposals that would re-divide the city of Jerusalem and we regularly communicate that to people in the Obama administration.”

Josh Block, the president of the Israel Project, said Jewish groups throughout the process should be urging sensitivity to Israeli security needs in a tumultuous neighborhood. But he said the groups should be prepared as well for the possibility of the talks failing due to Palestinian intransigence.

In that event, Block said, it will be important to work to ensure that the Palestinians, and not Israel, are held responsible.

“The Israelis are cooperative,” he said. “Are Indyk and Kerry at the end saying both sides wouldn’t get it done, or are they going to say it’s the Palestinians?”


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