Sharon and a Critic Jostle for Limelight As Gaza Pullout Feud Comes to America

Duel at Aipac, Other Venues

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.
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When Israeli Prime Minister Sharon comes to the United States this week to stump for his Gaza disengagement plan, he will be competing for the spotlight with the most prominent opponent of the initiative, Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik, resigned from Sharon’s government two weeks ago to protest the disengagement plan, but he is still receiving prominent billing from some of the same groups that are hosting Sharon.

Next week, on May 24, at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, Sharansky is speaking at a gala dinner event the day before Sharon’s headlining speech. Two days later, The Israel Project, a public relations group that frequently has voiced support for the disengagement plan, is hosting a luncheon with Sharansky, where he will speak with American journalists and the organization’s financial supporters.

Officials at both organizations said that Sharansky will speak only about his recent book on spreading democracy. The arrival of both Sharon and Sharansky, however, seems likely to trigger the most public debate to date in America over the plan.

Supporters of disengagement claim that the warm welcome for Sharansky, just months before the pullout from Gaza is scheduled to begin, reflects the failure of the American Jewish community to rally unambiguously and enthusiastically behind Sharon and voice support for the Gaza pullout.

“Regrettably, support should have been shown over the last year — since disengagement was announced,” said Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum. Reich has helped organize an upcoming newspaper advertisement in support of disengagement. “But I think the community just has not risen to the challenge. Sadly those who oppose disengagement are more passionate and vocal than those who support it.”

Israel is scheduled to withdraw all of its citizens and soldiers from Gaza, starting this August. It is the boldest proposal put forward by Sharon to deal with the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Polls have shown that a solid majority of the American Jewish community — about 65% — supports the disengagement plan. The Israeli public has shown similar levels of support, but recent polls show a drop, following several highly visible protests organized by disengagement opponents wearing trademark orange clothing in support of the Gazan settlers. Some of the largest protests came on Israeli Independence Day, when Sharansky spoke to over 50,000 supporters in Gush Katif, the main settlement bloc in Gaza.

Now, as Sharon heads for America, protesters are making their plans to confront him in this country. A coalition of American groups opposed to the pullout plan — including Americans for a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America — has planned three public disengagement protests for next week. One, scheduled to take place in Washington on May 25, will feature tents “indicating the homelessness of the Jews being expelled from their homes,” according to promotional material. So far, the only planned show of support for the pullout is the single ad organized by Reich, which is set to appear in The New York Times.

A debate over the proper level of support for disengagement has sprung up around Sharon’s May 22 meeting in New York with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a coalition of 52 national organizations widely viewed as the Jewish community’s consensus voice on Middle East issues. The Presidents Conference is co-hosting a rally for Sharon, but the organization has declined — despite the requests of some member organizations — to bill the gathering as an explicitly pro-disengagement event. The Presidents Conference also has declined to fund media advertisements supporting the disengagement plan.

“There’s no reason that we should not say this rally is in support of the disengagement plan,” said Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The conference has a position endorsing disengagement.”

To fill the void, the Israel Policy Forum has drawn together 25 Jewish organizations to sign and pay for an ad in the Sunday, May 22, edition of The New York Times proclaiming their support for the disengagement plan. It will be signed by several influential organizations that belong to the Presidents Conference, including Yoffie’s group, as well as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah.

The Presidents Conference is paying for a separate ad, along with the United Jewish Communities and the UJA-Federation of New York, welcoming Sharon to New York. At the Presidents Conference’s rally in Manhattan on Sunday, at Baruch College, Sharon will be sure to tout his own plan. But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Presidents Conference, said that with the American president, Congress and public behind the disengagement plan, it is not necessary to pay for a full-scale publicity blitz right now.

“This is something that is playing out in Israel, not the United States,” Hoenlein said. “The real need will come as we approach disengagement.”

Toward that end, Hoenlein said, the Presidents Conference has a number of projects in the works, including a series of pro-disengagement opinion essays that the organization will distribute to members, as well as a planned Web site that will provide information about the disengagement plan.

Thus far, The Israel Project — the one group that has put together a serious campaign in America promoting disengagement — also has chosen to host Sharansky, a leading critic of the plan.

The Washington-based organization has launched an advertising campaign aimed at American journalists to demonstrate the importance of the Gaza pullout. In eye-catching fliers sent out to over 3,000 American journalists, The Israel Project borrows from the arguments of the plan’s opponents to demonstrate the length to which Israel is willing to go for peace. One flier asks, “Why would someone move the graves of victims of terrorism?”

Sharansky, who has argued that the pullout will not help the prospects for peace, may undercut the message of support. But the director of The Israel Project, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, said that Sharansky is going to focus on the ideas in his recent book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror” and that he would steer clear of criticizing Sharon. An Aipac spokesman, Andrew Schwartz, gave a similar explanation for his organization’s decision to invite Sharansky to speak at its annual policy conference.

“Natan Sharansky is an icon in his own right,” Schwartz said. “His views on the policy of the Israeli government don’t have anything to do with his invitation.”

The disengagement plan is going to be one of the main policies promoted by Aipac in the coming year, according to a draft of the organization’s action agenda that will be circulated at the three-day conference. On May 24, conference delegates will fan out on Capitol Hill, touting Aipac’s priorities to their representatives.

This pro-disengagement message may be somewhat overshadowed by protesters. The coalition of anti-disengagement groups is chartering buses to Washington, and it is planning, on Monday, to lobby congressmen against disengagement.

“We have to inform them so that when the Aipac people get there on Tuesday, they will have the proper information,” said Helen Freedman, who is coordinating the protests.

The union’s Yoffie said that the public should not overestimate the meaning of these protests.

“However many people they have, it’s not representative of the American Jewish community as a whole,” Yoffie said. “The truth is that American Jews are behind disengagement and they’re behind the prime minister.”

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