Right-wing Faithful Fight Against the Tide

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 17, 2004, issue of December 17, 2004.
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If world events had not intruded, these past few weeks might have been good for the Zionist Organization of America, a leading critic of the Oslo peace process and Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

On Sunday, the ZOA’s annual dinner drew its largest crowd in recent history. The event came just one week after Congress passed the organization’s signature legislative effort in recent years — the Koby Mandell Act — enabling stronger pursuit of Palestinian terrorists by the American government.

But for the ZOA, which is opposed to any negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, while the smaller battles are being won, the larger war seems to be slipping away. In Israel, last week, the ruling Likud Party of Prime Minister Sharon agreed to form a coalition with the dovish Labor party, a move that is expected to ease negotiations with the Palestinians and facilitate the Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle several West Banks settlements.

Needles to say, ZOA activists adamantly oppose Sharon’s plan.

The ingathering of America’s right-wing faithful Monday night offered a pulse on the community at this ambivalent moment. The crowd was defiant and resolute, but not particularly happy with the direction that history seems to be facing right now.

“I kinda feel like we’re fighting against the tide,” said Jay Lampert, a 31-year-old businessman at the dinner. “We’re not going to win this on our own. It’s going to have to be something that will have the huge assistance of [God]. Without that, we’re done for.”

Founded in 1897, the ZOA first served as the American wing of Theodore Herzl’s Zionist movement, and later Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis led the organization. After decades of waning influence, the organization took on its current role as chief opponent to the Oslo peace process after Klein’s election to president in 1994. At the time, it had $3,000 in its bank account; now it has more than $10 million, according to the group’s most recent tax returns.

Klein has become the heart and soul of the organization, with his almost daily press releases condemning the Palestinians. His rousing 20-minute speech at the Sunday dinner stirred up the crowd. Sharon came in for criticism because of his willingness to give up any of Gaza or the West Bank. Klein’s heartiest ire, though, was saved for Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner in the campaign to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. Many in the West have hailed Abbas as a moderate.

Abbas has condemned Palestinians’ use of violence against Israelis. Earlier this week, he told a London-based newspaper: “The use of arms has been damaging and should end.”

Klein dismissed the recent pronouncements, calling Abbas a Holocaust denier and a terrorist. “This is absurd,” Klein said. “Where is the world? Why aren’t people saying the emperor isn’t wearing his clothes?”

Even stronger words were spoken during the invocation, delivered by Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a Talmud instructor and professor at Yeshiva University. “Cursed be the one who puts his faith in the Abu Mazens and Abu Allahs,” Tendler said, invoking the noms de guerre of Abbas and of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei.

Both the Sharon government and the Bush administration have expressed some degree of faith in Abbas, as have two American politicians who made appearances at ZOA’s dinner: Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and Rep. Anthony Wiener, a New York Democrat.

“I share everyone’s high hope for Abu Mazen,” Wiener told the Forward after a brief appearance onstage at the ZOA event. But, Wiener added, “you cannot blame some in this room for being skeptical.”

Brownback’s keynote speech made lyrical comparisons between the flat expanses of his native Kansas and the deserts of Israel, and he reminded the audience of “Red America’s support for Israel.” Afterward, talking to the Forward, Brownback said: “At the end of the day [the Palestinians] have to pick their leaders; we can’t. It seems to me that the process is still taking place, and we shouldn’t be making statements about their potential leaders.”

At least one of the featured political speakers, Likud lawmaker Uzi Landau, appeared to share the ZOA’s absolute opposition to concessions to the Palestinians. Sharon fired Landau in October after voting against the Gaza disengagement plan. But when some in the crowd booed Sharon’s name, Landau said: “Excuse me. No. Let me make it clear, that I have, and I think everybody should have, the utmost respect for Mr. Sharon.”

In Israel, even as the political tide appears to be turning against them, Sharon’s recent moves seem to have motivated Gaza and West Bank settlers who are opposed to any territorial concessions. Along similar lines, even as the Bush administration was stepping up its efforts to kick-start the peace process, the ZOA achieved one of its top legislative successes with the passage of the Koby Mandell Act, which the organization has been pushing since 2001.

The legislation, which was sponsored by Brownback, among others, was passed as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill on December 6, and will allow for the creation of an Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism, under the control of the Justice Department.

The new office will not target Palestinian terrorists specifically, but Klein initiated the legislation because of what he and other critics describe as the lack of action taken in the cases of the 107 Americans killed by Palestinian terrorists since 1968. The act was named after a 13-year-old American immigrant to Israel who was murdered in the West Bank.

On Monday night, at the ZOA dinner, the legislative victory was hardly mentioned. Most of the talk was about what soon might be lost, and many used the Hanukkah holiday to compare the current fight of right-wing activists to that of the Macabees more than two millennia ago.

Perhaps the most striking reference to the holiday was made by David Hatuel, a resident of the Gaza settlement of Gush Katif who flew in for the event — just months after his wife and four daughters were killed in a terrorist attack near their home.

“I stayed alone,” Hatuel said. “But I decided to stay in Gush Katif and to live there forever. I am sure that we will win in this hard battle.”

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