WASHINGTON — In an unusual ad hominem attack, Orthodox Union President Stephen Savitsky this week criticized the president of the Israel Policy Forum, Seymour Reich, for allegedly urging the Bush administration to pressure Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians. Reich denied having invited American pressure.
Savitsky’s criticism came in a November 28 statement calling on American Friends of Israel not to intervene “in Israeli government decisions and in the upcoming Israeli elections.”
Savitsky also called on American Jews to avoid “lobbying the American government to pressure Israel to make concessions it would not otherwise make.”
The statement went on to say: “Reports of recent efforts by Mr. Seymour Reich and the Israel Policy Forum to urge American government officials to pressure Israel to make certain concessions is not only disrespectful to Israel’s government but offensive to millions of American Jews who categorically reject such an approach.”
Savitsky was referring to press reports about a meeting in early November between Israel Policy Forum leaders and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Less than two weeks after the meeting, Rice brokered a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over security arrangements at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The agreement gave Israel no presence at the crossing, posting European Union monitors instead. It provided that in cases where Israeli and Palestinian officials disagree over the entry of particular individuals or goods, the Palestinian side would have the final say.
Although no Israeli officials have complained of American pressure to accept the accord, some hawkish Israeli lawmakers said the agreement compromises Israel’s security needs.
After the agreement was signed, the Israel Policy Forum commended Rice for her involvement and noted that it came shortly after the organization had urged her to be more involved. Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told reporters that he and his colleagues had strengthened Rice in her opinion “that aggressive American involvement was needed to achieve practical results.”
Subsequent media reports depicted the IPF message to Rice as an invitation to Washington to pressure Israel. One commentator was Isi Leibler, former chairman of the World Jewish Congress’s governing board. In a strongly worded Jerusalem Post article November 27, he accused Reich of “irresponsible behavior” and “crossing red lines.”
Reacting to the criticisms, Reich said he never has called for American pressure on Israel. “The word pressure is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Israel,” he told the Forward. “I’ve always accepted the proposition that Israel has to make its own decisions and American Jews are not there to tell Israel how to deal with security issues.” Asked if urging the administration to be “aggressively” involved is not an implied invitation to pressure, Reich replied: “No, there is an important difference. American involvement has always been essential for any resolution of issues between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and her Arab neighbors.”
Reich added that America “has never shied away from the recognition that Israel’s security is the paramount issue.” He said he has “full confidence in the administration helping the Israelis to achieve a goal that everyone agrees was in Israel’s interest.”
Questioning the Orthodox Union’s motives, Israel Policy Forum executive director Jonathan Jacoby said that the “O.U. was notably silent when American groups opposing disengagement lobbied for their views on Capitol Hill this summer. They should stop hiding behind buzz-words and engage in a genuine debate with those who hold views different from theirs.”
Reich said he was preparing a rebuttal to Leibler’s Jerusalem Post article.