Influential American Jewish Coalition Balks at Endorsing Sharon’s Gaza Plan

Majority Favors Withdrawal, But Hawks Prevail

By Ori Nir

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Despite a strong pitch from Israel’s ambassador to the United States, American Jewry’s top representative body balked this week at adopting a statement directly endorsing Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan.

In a dramatic series of events, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations held a stormy meeting October 14 in its Manhattan headquarters, where a majority of member groups called for an immediate endorsement. Ignoring the call for a firm endorsement, the group’s chairman, James Tisch, instead issued a statement this week that stopped short of backing Sharon’s plan, though it noted that “a substantial majority” of the group’s members supported the government’s stance.

The conference, a coalition of 52 national organizations that is commonly seen as the community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs, wields significant influence in Washington, as well as in Jerusalem and other foreign capitals. A clear endorsement could have served as a significant tool for Sharon, who is scheduled to submit his unilateral disengagement plan to the Knesset for ratification next week. Sharon is struggling to secure a parliamentary majority in favor of his plan, and is attempting to sway wavering lawmakers in his own Likud Party in advance of an expected October 25 vote.

Liberal and centrist members of the Presidents Conference complained that the apparent failure to issue a clear endorsement is just the latest example of the conference, a consensus-driven coalition, being stymied by Orthodox and Likud-leaning organizations. The groups on the right, which generally oppose Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, represent a relatively small fraction of the American Jewish population but constitute a significant presence in the umbrella body.

The conference’s statement noted that “a substantial majority of the member organizations expressed support for the prime minister’s disengagement plan as approved by the Israeli Cabinet, and an even larger number of member organizations said they could support such a plan when approved by the Knesset.” But liberal and centrist conference members said that they were disappointed with the statement, because it failed to offer a clear endorsement of Sharon’s plan at a time when the prime minister is facing stiff opposition from the Israeli Right.

The conference’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, defended the statement, arguing that “we say it in much stronger terms.”

“It says that there was a majority in favor of disengagement,” Hoenlein said. “If we said that we supported it, everybody would say that it doesn’t have any meaning. So by doing this everybody has the facts. It is fair to everybody, and it states clearly where the conference came out. There is a majority in favor of the disengagement.”

The statement arrives as Sharon is coming under intense pressure, even from Likud members who support the disengagement plan, to hold a national referendum on the issue — a step that the prime minister publicly has resisted, saying it simply represents an effort by opponents to delay any Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. Settler leaders have warned that implementing the plan without a clear democratic mandate, via a referendum, could trigger a civil war.

The prime minister appeared to concede some ground on the issue Monday by agreeing to the formation of a Likud committee that would explore the implications of a referendum.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, spoke at the October 14 meeting. According to several participants who spoke on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said his government would welcome a statement of support. One high-ranking source said that Ayalon declined to address specifically the question of timing, but he and other participants said the general perception was that the ambassador was attempting to convince members of the conference to endorse the plan.

The meeting ended with an air of confusion. Tisch told members that he would exercise his prerogative to draft a statement reflecting the consensus view. Members demanded that he state what his understanding of the consensus was, but Tisch refused, explaining that it required careful wording.

Instead, Tisch opted to take a few days to craft a revised version that would in some way take into account dissenting views. He decided to act before the Knesset’s vote on the plan, and began circulating a draft statement among the conference members this week.

Last week’s meeting left both proponents and opponents of issuing a statement disappointed and angry.

Critics, including representatives of the Zionist Organization of America and several Orthodox organizations, were angry with what Tisch, the organization’s lay chairman, described as his decision to draft a statement of support. They argued that with about one-third of those present at the meeting opposing a statement, the conference lacked a consensus to support Sharon’s plan.

Some supporters, on the other hand, were disappointed that the conference did not issue a statement on the spot, having won clear majority support. Leaders of most of the largest organizations in the conference argued in favor of issuing an immediate statement.

The general impression among many members is that Tisch and Hoenlein decided to call the October 14 meeting only after the Anti-Defamation League began rounding up signatures for its own pro-disengagement statement. For months, the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, had been urging conference leaders to act.

Foxman said the conference statement was “fine,” so the ADL would abandon its independent efforts to line up other organizations. Still, he added: “The statement is in the form of an explanation and minutes of the meeting rather than a simple declarative statement, which would say ‘The Conf of Presidents overwhelmingly supports the prime minister’s disengagement plan.’ Period. That’s all we needed to say.”

Another Jewish umbrella organization, which belongs to the conference and includes several of the same members, argued for an immediate endorsement of the disengagement plan last week and decided not to wait.

“We are leaving for our annual leadership mission to Israel this week. We will meet with senior officials there, and we will express to them our unwavering support for the disengagement plan,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative group that brings together 123 local community relations councils and 13 national Jewish organizations. However, it is best known for its work on domestic issues.

“For an umbrella organization not to support [the plan] would be harmful” for American-Israeli relations, Rosenthal said. “Not to be forthcoming would be unthinkable.”

The “inaction on Thursday was in fact an action, and we are not going to wait for the process,” she said. “We have our own.”

Hoenlein, the conference’s staff director, defended the delay, arguing that the process was necessary for the sake of preserving the idea that the organization expresses the Jewish community’s consensus on Israel.

“We went through a process” of deliberations and discussions, Hoenlein said, “because it’s a serious matter. People are afraid of what’s going to happen when you move people [out of their homes in Gaza settlements] or of what the implications will be in terms of Kassam rockets launched into Israel.”

But the main question, Hoenlein and other participants said, had nothing to do with the merits of Sharon’s plan. Most groups agreed that the pullout plan ought to be endorsed; the issue was whether to wait until after the Knesset vote. In fact, when the 50 to 60 organizational officials who attended the meeting were asked to raise their hands if they would contest issuing a statement of support even after the Knesset has ratified the plan, only a few hands went up, several participants said.

Some organizations, including B’nai B’rith, argued that because Sharon chose to bring the plan to the Knesset for ratification, it would be inappropriate for American Jews to interject their views before the Israeli legislative and political process fully unfolds.

Several participants countered that the plan had become Israel’s policy in June, when the Cabinet first approved it.

Ambassador Ayalon took that position in his remarks at the opening of the meeting. Some members used his comments to make a case for endorsing the plan immediately.

“A key question was the definition of when [the plan] is approved: [Is it] when the Knesset votes on it? When the government votes?” Hoenlein said.

Proponents of endorsing the plan said it should have been done long ago — when the proposal was announced by Sharon and endorsed by the Bush administration in April, or after the Israeli Cabinet approved it in June. They also warned that not issuing such a statement could strain American-Israeli relations, and argued that even though the Israeli political process has not been completed, a majority of American Jews and most Israelis are shown in polls to support the plan.

Among the plan’s outspoken supporters at the meeting were three past chairmen of the Presidents Conference — Seymour Reich, Mel Salberg and Mort Zuckerman — as well as Tisch, the current chair. Tisch reportedly said that President Bush expects and deserves public American Jewish recognition of his support for Sharon and the pullout plan.

Representatives of the Reform, the Conservative and the Reconstructionist synagogue movements, as well as American Jewish Committee, Hadassah and other several other major organizations spoke in support of a resolution. Among those objecting were representatives of the ZOA, the Orthodox Union and Likud USA.

being stymied by Orthodox and Likud-leaning organizations. The groups on the right, which generally oppose Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, represent a small fraction of the American Jewish population but constitute a significant presence in the umbrella body.

The conference’s statement noted that “a substantial majority of the member organizations expressed support for the prime minister’s disengagement plan as approved by the Israeli Cabinet, and an even larger number of member organizations said they could support such a plan when approved by the Knesset.” But liberal and centrist conference members said that they were disappointed with the statement, because it failed to offer a clear endorsement of Sharon’s plan at a time when the prime minister is facing stiff opposition from the Israeli right.

Tisch defended the statement.

“The conclusion that I came to was when in doubt just present the evidence, that’s what we did,” Tisch said. “We let the reader come to his own conclusion. By saying ‘substantial majority,’ which in actuality there was, those who want to can say all right there was. And, likewise, those who do not want to see it as a consensus, don’t have to see it as a consensus.”

The conference’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, stated: “By doing this everybody has the facts. It is fair to everybody, and it states clearly where the conference came out. There is a majority in favor of the disengagement.”

The statement arrives as Sharon is coming under intense pressure, even from Likud members who support the disengagement plan, to hold a national referendum on the issue — a step that the prime minister publicly has resisted, saying it simply represents an effort by opponents to delay any Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. Settler leaders have warned that implementing the plan without a clear democratic mandate, via a referendum, could trigger a civil war.

Sharon appeared to concede some ground on the issue Monday by agreeing to the formation of a Likud committee that would explore the implications of a referendum.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, spoke at the October 14 meeting of the conference. According to several participants who spoke on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said his government would welcome a statement of support. One high-ranking source said that Ayalon declined to address specifically the question of timing, but he and other participants said the general perception was that the ambassador was attempting to convince members of the conference to endorse the plan.

The meeting ended with an air of confusion. Tisch told members that he would exercise his prerogative to draft a statement reflecting the consensus view. Members demanded that he state what his understanding of the consensus was, but Tisch refused, explaining that it required careful wording. Instead, Tisch took a few days to craft a revised version that would in some way take into account dissenting views. He decided to act before the Knesset’s vote on the plan, and began circulating a draft statement among the conference members Tuesday night.

Last week’s meeting left both proponents and opponents of issuing a statement disappointed and angry.

Critics, including representatives of the Zionist Organization of America and several Orthodox organizations, were angry with what Tisch, the organization’s lay chairman, described as his decision to draft a statement of support. They argued that with about one-third of those present at the meeting opposing a statement, the conference lacked a consensus to support Sharon’s plan.

Some supporters, on the other hand, were disappointed that the conference did not issue a statement on the spot, having won clear majority support. Leaders of most of the largest organizations in the conference argued in favor of issuing an immediate statement.

The general impression among many members is that Tisch and Hoenlein decided to call the October 14 meeting only after the Anti-Defamation League began rounding up signatures for its own pro-disengagement statement. For months, the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, had been urging conference leaders to act.

Foxman said “we accept” the conference’s statement, but “we still believe that the prime minister deserves a clearer endorsement from the American Jewish community.”

Leaders of another Jewish umbrella organization, which belongs to the conference and includes several of the same members, are in Israel pushing the plan. “We just finished meetings with Shinui, Likud, Agudath Israel and Labor to express the consensus of the Jewish community … in favor of the disengagement plan,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative group that brings together 123 local community relations councils and 13 national organizations. However, it is best known for its work on domestic issues.

“For an umbrella organization not to support [the plan] would be harmful” for American-Israeli relations, Rosenthal said. “Not to be forthcoming would be unthinkable.”

The “inaction on Thursday was in fact an action, and we are not going to wait for the process,” she said. “We have our own.”

Hoenlein, the conference’s staff director, defended the delay, saying the process was necessary for the sake of preserving the idea that the organization expresses the Jewish community’s consensus on Israel.

“We went through a process” of deliberations and discussions, Hoenlein said, “because it’s a serious matter. People are afraid of what’s going to happen when you move people [out of their homes in Gaza settlements] or of what the implications will be in terms of Kassam rockets launched into Israel.”

The main question, Hoenlein and other participants said, had little to do with the merits of Sharon’s plan. Most groups agreed that the pullout plan ought to be endorsed; the issue was whether to wait until after the Knesset vote. In fact, when the 50 to 60 organizational officials who attended the meeting were asked to raise their hands if they would contest issuing a statement of support even after the Knesset has ratified the plan, very few hands went up, several participants said.

Some organizations, including B’nai B’rith, argued that because Sharon chose to bring the plan to the Knesset for ratification, it would be inappropriate for American Jews to interject their views before the Israeli legislative and political process fully unfolds. Several participants countered that the plan had become Israel’s policy in June, when the Cabinet first approved it.

Ambassador Ayalon took that position in his remarks at the opening of the meeting. Some members used his comments to make a case for endorsing the plan immediately.

Proponents of endorsing the plan said it should have been done long ago — when the proposal was announced by Sharon and endorsed by the Bush administration in April, or after the Israeli Cabinet approved it in June. They also warned that not issuing such a statement could strain American-Israeli relations, and argued that even though the Israeli political process has not been completed, a majority of American Jews and most Israelis are shown in polls to support the plan.

Among the plan’s outspoken supporters at the meeting were three past chairmen of the Presidents Conference: Seymour Reich, Mel Salberg and Mort Zuckerman.

Representatives of the Reform, the Conservative and the Reconstructionist synagogue movements, as well as American Jewish Committee, Hadassah and other several other major organizations spoke in support of issuing a statement backing Sharon’s plan. Among those objecting were representatives of the ZOA, the Orthodox Union and Likud USA.






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