WASHINGTON — An upcoming fund-raising dinner of a major pro-Israel organization will honor a top Likud official, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and a Republican businessman, Gary Heiman. Neither choice would be remarkable except that the organization is the Israel Policy Forum — long seen as a bastion of liberal support for Israeli peace policies.
Known as IPF, the New York-based organization was originally founded to support the peace moves of Israel’s ruling Labor Party in the mid-1990s and, in the process, developed close ties to the Clinton administration. Now, after years on the sidelines during much of the intifada, the organization is seeking to play a similar role in helping a Likud premier, Ariel Sharon, sell his Gaza disengagement plan to a Republican White House and a GOP-controlled Congress.
In recent weeks, IPF leaders have played a leadership role in galvanizing American Jewish support for Sharon’s plan to withdraw completely from Gaza and dismantle several settlements in the West Bank. They succeeded last week in convincing most of America’s major national Jewish organizations and the two largest synagogue movements to sign on to a full-page advertisement in the May 22 Sunday edition of The New York Times expressing support for Sharon’s disengagement plan.
The ad was published as the prime minister arrived in the United States for a visit that was almost exclusively devoted to meetings with American Jews. The visit was Sharon’s most significant attempt so far to personally sell his plan to American Jews and secure a show of support from communal leaders.
Among the parties that signed the ad were the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Reform movement and the Conservative movement. The ad noted that two-thirds of Americans, both Jews and non-Jews, support the plan. It also pledged to “intensify our efforts to build support for Israel in the United States” and help Israel achieve the vision of a two-state solution to the conflict.
“All we did was pull together a centrist group of major organizations who were frustrated and unable to fully express themselves in support of disengagement,” said Seymour Reich, IPF’s new president, who led the effort. “What this says is that there was a void in the Jewish community,” he said.
The void, Reich added, was a result of the reluctance of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to actively express support for the disengagement. The conference, a 52-member umbrella organization that is widely seen as the Jewish community’s consensus voice on Middle East issues, took out its own full-page ad in the May 22 New York Times, together with the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Federation of New York. Though the conference’s ad welcomed Sharon and saluted him for his “strong leadership and vision for Israel’s future,” it failed to explicitly endorse the disengagement plan.
Reich said that he decided to go ahead with his ad after the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, told him that he opposes the idea in principle because ads are expensive and ineffective. A full-page ad in The New York Times can cost as much as $100,000.
Hoenlein did not return calls for comment.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said that the IPF’s success in organizing its ad reflects the degree to which the Israeli political center — in terms of its vision for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — has recently shifted to the left. Uprooting Jewish settlements from Gaza and the West Bank to allow the formation of a viable independent Palestinian state was once the agenda of the left-wing fringe of the Israeli political spectrum — today it is the official policy of a Likud-led government, headed by the architect of the settlement enterprise.
Changes in Israel’s political arena caused a “complex reshuffling of [American Jewish] advocacy groups,” said Ofira Seliktar, a political science professor at Gratz College in suburban Philadelphia. “You have organizations such as IPF, which were totally marginalized by the Palestinian uprising since 2000,” Seliktar said. “Now it can be in the center to defend Sharon against the criticism of other Jewish groups.”
IPF is not the only left-of-center Jewish group that has recently become more active. Americans for Peace Now and the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek V’Shalom have also intensified their presence on Capitol Hill and are organizing various activities to support Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
More than other left-of-center Jewish groups, Foxman said, IPF has succeeded in positioning itself as a rallying voice for the evolving Israeli and American Jewish political middle ground.
To a large extent, Jewish organizational leaders say, IPF’s recent success is attributable to Reich, its new president. A former chairman of the Presidents Conference and leader of several other major Jewish organizations, Reich enjoys both the connections and the clout to pick up the phone and win the support of heads of Jewish groups and Jewish religious leaders. He also has the energy and conviction to go out and lobby Capitol Hill, as he recently did in support of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.
IPF has in the past used its lay leaders to lobby Congress, said the organization’s executive director and founder, Jonathan Jacoby. Recently, however, it has intensified its political action on Capitol Hill.
The organization, which Jacoby describes as a “grass-tops group,” a cross between a think-tank and an advocacy group, is also seeking paths to the Bush White House — hence the decision to honor Heiman, an IPF board member, at its dinner next week.
Heiman, the president and CEO of the Cincinnati-based Standard Textile, is a Republican known to have Bush’s ear.
“In IPF I am viewed as one who does not always lean toward the left, as a centrist” Heiman said, adding that as a Republican who personally supports Bush he is “certainly an exception rather than the rule at IPF.”
“I think that’s why they chose me and wanted me to be an honoree,” he said. By honoring him along with Olmert, Heiman said, IPF is sending a centrist message.
“It is showing that it has learned a lot in the past four years,” Heiman said. IPF “came to grips with the fact that Yasser Arafat was mainly to blame for the war of the past four years and that realization caused IPF to have its eyes much more open.”