Groups Win Support for Israel on Fence

By Ori Nir

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — With the International Court of Justice set to open hearings on Israel’s West Bank security fence, American Jewish organizations are claiming partial credit for the decision by Western governments to side with Jerusalem and promising a full-blown campaign in support of the barrier.

“We perceive it as a new front in the war against Israel’s legitimacy, so there is a sense that this is a time that requires intense activity,” said Martin Raffel, chief operating officer of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group of 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 local community-relations councils.

American Jewish groups — particularly those with international offices and a tradition of diplomatic activity, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith — have already taken concerted action to assist Israel in the diplomatic arena. These Jewish groups have been actively lobbying governments worldwide to support the Israeli position that the court, the United Nations’s highest judicial body, ought not to discuss Israel’s West Bank security fence.

“We actually had some success in that,” said Jess Hordes, who heads ADL’s Washington office. “I assume that some of the countries that decided to weigh in have done so in response to representations” by Jewish groups, Hordes said. “We sent letters to the Italians, the Spanish, the Irish and a number of others, urging them to take a position on the Court’s confidence.”

Daniel Mariashin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith, recently met with senior government officials in Spain. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee held meetings with some Pacific island government officials.

In total, more than 40 governments, as well as the European Union, filed briefs with the court. Most of them — as many as 30, according to Israeli diplomatic sources and media reports — have urged the court not to take up the case.

Israeli officials are especially pleased by the European Union’s decision to express such a view in its brief, as did 14 European countries and Russia, in separate filings. The Bush administration sounded a similar theme in its brief.

Israel, in its brief filed earlier this week, argued that the court lacks jurisdiction over the issue, and that it would be acting inappropriately by taking up the politically charged issue, which is better handled in political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli legal experts and their American colleagues believe that most of the pro-Israel briefs do not challenge the court’s jurisdiction, but question the appropriateness of taking up this particular case.

Israeli press reports quoted unnamed Israeli officials as speculating that the unexpected volume of support for Israel would lead the court to drop the case. Legal experts with American Jewish organizations, as well as Israeli diplomats in the United States, characterized such speculations as “wishful thinking.”

The pro-Israel briefs, however, are likely to dampen the effect of a court ruling against Israel, making it significantly more difficult to forge an international consensus in favor of sanctions against Israel.

Jewish groups are hoping to build on Israel’s diplomatic victories. Raffel, who is coordinating the JCPA’s campaign to defend Israel, said he expects the public effort to gain momentum as the February 23 start date for the oral arguments approaches. The chief objective, Raffel said, “is conditioning the public environment to be understanding of Israel’s point of view” on the fence. Jewish activists say that means linking the fence to the fight against terrorism.

Not everyone in the organized Jewish community, however, supports the planned campaign. Some critics argue that it might have the adverse effect of attracting unwanted attention to a court case that Israel prefers to delegitimize, and even dismiss. Others worry that a high-profile campaign would attract attention when the court discusses the route of the fence, which snakes deep into Palestinian territory in the West Bank, and is viewed by many diplomatic observers as legally problematic, if not indefensible.

Critics of the campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity, seem to be in the minority. Most Jewish groups seem to believe that, at least in the upcoming phase, as the court decides whether to take up the case, a high-profile campaign is desirable. “There is a general sense that we can’t leave the field open to one-sided propaganda,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In the coming days, sources said, Jewish groups are planning to start lobbying Congress for a resolution supporting Israel and plan to have a vocal presence at the Hague when the court begins its deliberations. Jewish activists are also organizing letter-writing campaigns, sending opinion essays to local and national newspapers, participating in radio call-in shows, meeting with consular officials at foreign embassies and consulates in America, and considering the idea of holding public rallies. In addition, the Conference of Presidents activated its dormant Web site and filled it primarily with information defending the fence and highlighting the specter of terrorism.

“There are a lot of questions as to the best way to go about this,” Hoenlein said. “How high profile? How confrontational this should be as the process goes along? There are a lot of views, and [we] are trying to balance all of them as” the case moves forward.

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