WASHINGTON — Bucking calls in the international community for a cease-fire in the Middle East, Jewish organizations launched a major lobbying offensive in the nation’s capital this week to give Israel more time to deal a decisive blow to Islamist militants in Lebanon and Gaza.
With the civilian death toll in Lebanon surpassing 200 early in the week, international calls were increasing for a cease-fire and the deployment of an international force to Lebanon, and the United States signaled that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would arrive in the region Sunday. Israeli military officials, however, were saying that they would need up to two more weeks to decimate Hezbollah’s operational capabilities.
In an effort to head off calls in Washington for a quick cease-fire, some officials with Jewish groups have spent the past few days urging policymakers to make sure that Israel is given ample time and freedom of action to inflict as much damage as possible on Hezbollah’s infrastructure in southern Lebanon.
About 50 leaders of the Jewish community from across the country were scheduled to meet Thursday with Bush administration officials and congressional leaders. Pro-Israel advocates said that they would be asking the administration to slap more sanctions on Syria and to push the European Union to follow America’s lead by labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
In a particularly unusual move, one top Jewish communal leader, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, visited the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, to thank him for his country’s condemnation of Hezbollah for igniting the crisis by launching a cross-border raid against Israel and abducting two of its soldiers.
“We told the ambassador that this could be a new moment in the relationship, that the neighborhood is changing because the threats that face the Jewish people are also facing moderate Arab states,” Foxman said. According to the ADL, the Saudi ambassador urged all parties to “return to the basics” of Middle East peacemaking by embracing the Saudi peace plan of March 2002, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines in return for peaceful, normal relations between Israel and the Arab world. The Saudi diplomat, Foxman said, agreed that “this could be a moment to bring moderates on all sides closer together.”
Many Jewish organizations, including the ADL, were also praising President Bush for repeatedly defending Israel’s right to defend itself. But their most important goal appeared to be to keep America from shutting down Israel’s military operations prematurely.
“The timing is very important, because we don’t know how long the fighting will continue. We don’t know if these are the days leading up to the proverbial Six Day War or whether this is the fifth day of a six-day war,” said William Daroff, vice president of public policy at United Jewish Communities, which is co-sponsoring the impromptu lobbying day. “It is important, as the fighting continues,” he said, “that the United States government continues its steadfast support for Israel’s right to defend itself.”
The lobbying campaign is one of numerous actions taken by American Jewish organizations to show solidarity with Israel and to help Israelis cope with the ongoing rocket attacks.
This week, several Jewish groups — including UJC, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — organized emergency missions to Israel to meet with Israeli leaders and to tour Israeli communities that have come under rocket fire.
Other groups are helping Israelis temporarily relocate from the north of the country to the center, helping with the mobilization and funding of psychological support for Israeli trauma victims.
Jewish communities in several major American cities — including New York, Washington, Miami, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia — have organized rallies in support of Israel. Jewish activists are also scheduling meetings with diplomats stationed in foreign embassies in Washington and consulates across America to encourage foreign governments to support Israel’s campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah.
Two organizations, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, called for a nationwide night of prayer and Torah study July 19.
“This is a unique moment of broad consensus in the community in support of Israel’s right to defend itself and to take the measures necessary to stop the reign of terror,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference. The conference is a 52-member umbrella group widely seen as the Jewish community’s collective voice on Middle East affairs. “There is deep concern because people have come to realize that this has nothing to do with occupation of territory. This is really about Israel’s right to exist. There are no issues here that justify what’s happening either from Gaza or from Lebanon. People also see it as a part of the war on terrorism.”
While the Bush administration strongly expressed support for the notion that Israel was waging a legitimate fight against terrorism, it urged caution and insisted that no steps be taken that could threaten the stability of Lebanon’s democratically elected government. Bush and Rice used their influence to block or tone down international criticism of Israel. Jewish communal leaders expressed particular appreciation for the administration’s early public support of Israel’s position that it was pointless to push for a cease-fire before Hezbollah was significantly weakened.
Thanks to the pressure from Bush, the statement of the G8 industrial nations was “remarkably positive, more than most of us would have imagined,” said the AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris. He was speaking from Israel, where he is leading an AJCommittee delegation of 40 lay leaders and staffers from America and Europe. Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, also expressed relief that the G8 statement avoided any harsh criticisms of Israel. “I would have expected a much harsher reaction from around the world,” Rosen said. “I think that what has finally settled in everyone’s mind is that this is a war that has to be fought by all countries that suffer from extremism. It’s a united world against extremism.”
Jewish groups said that they were quite happy with the response of several Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah last week endorsed an official Saudi statement blaming Hezbollah — which strongly benefits from Iranian financial and military support — for the deterioration across the Israeli-Lebanese border. Iran’s growing influence in the region “causes serious concern among ‘status quo’ regimes such as the Saudi, the Egyptian and the Jordanian,” said Gary Sick, who is a professor of international affairs at Columbia University and a former National Security Council expert on Iran and the Gulf.
While officials with Jewish groups applauded and celebrated the administration’s suspension of efforts to bring about a cease-fire, experts warn that America’s continued standing on the sidelines may erode its ability to play a role in renewed peace efforts in the region. The Bush administration has lost influence in the region because of its diplomatic standoffishness, said Richard Murphy, a former secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Reagan administration. Murphy was also a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. The current crisis may open new opportunities for a peace process, he said, but the administration seems uninterested in exploring them together with its international partners. “Without our trying to mold things, things will not go anywhere,” he said.