Minister Urging Americans To Protest Gaza Pullout Plan

By Ori Nir

Published March 19, 2004, issue of March 19, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Israel’s housing minister, Effi Eitam, called on American Jews this week to “speak out, both as Americans and as supporters of Israel” against his own prime minister’s plan for disengagement in Gaza.

“American Jewry should approach this issue both as citizens of a superpower that is fighting a global war against terrorism… and as people who care about Israel’s security,” Eitam told the Forward. “They ought to demand that the same criteria be applied to our war on terrorism as to theirs. They should also voice their opinion regarding the security risks of this plan, and the immorality of transferring Jews from their homes, which is as immoral as transferring Arabs.”

Eitam, who heads Israel’s National Religious Party, said he came to Washington to advance Israeli housing matters, but was devoting most of his 10-day trip to meetings with American Jews, primarily with members of Orthodox congregations, to rally them in opposition to Sharon’s plan.

His initial success record appeared mixed. This week one smaller Orthodox synagogue union, the National Council of Young Israel, asked members of its 150 congregations to phone Knesset members from Sharon’s Likud party to urge them to vote down the disengagement plan when it came before the Knesset on Monday. However, other Orthodox organizations, including the largest, the Orthodox Union, as well as the Religious Zionists of America, were resisting any move that would pit them against Israel’s prime minister.

Among other major groups, only the Zionist Organization of America is opposing Sharon’s plan. ZOA national president Morton Klein said his board authorized him last week to publicly campaign against what he called “this disastrous plan.” “We all have a moral obligation,” Klein said. “That land was given by God to all the Jewish people, who are all brothers and sisters. If we think that Jews are in danger, we must speak out.”

But while open opposition to Sharon was limited, the substance of Eitam’s message appeared to have broader resonance. Members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were said to have come home from a group visit to Israel last month with considerable doubts about the disengagement plan after being briefed on it by senior political and military officials. Both hawkish and dovish participants referred to the plan as “confusing” and “half-baked.”

“There is concern that I hear from people about the plan,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference. “There is a lack of clarity about what it means and how it will be implemented and what will happen with security. Nobody knows yet what it really means.”

Openly lobbying against the policies of Israel’s leaders traditionally has been considered taboo for Israelis traveling abroad, though the ban has weakened in recent years and appears to have collapsed entirely under the Sharon government. Israel’s tourism minister, Benny Elon, has repeatedly spoken out against his government’s policies during U.S. visits in the past year, and Shin Bet director Avi Dichter reportedly spoke critically of the disengagement plan during a recent Washington visit.

Eitam argued that his actions were legitimate because he was attacking a position that had not yet won formal endorsement from the Cabinet. If and when the government decides to implement Sharon’s plan, he said, his party will quit the government.

Nonetheless, Sharon appears unhappy with his ministers’ restiveness. His deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, speaking to reporters in Jerusalem this week, criticized “government ministers who are conducting a public campaign against the prime minister,” and warned that “the time is coming when the prime minister would have to clean house.” Most observers viewed Olmert’s remarks as directed against rebels in Sharon’s own Likud party.

Sharon narrowly escaped parliamentary defeat for his plan when he presented it to the Knesset in a speech on Monday. Told by aides that he could not muster a majority to endorse his remarks, with Eitam’s NRP and Elon’s National Union demonstratively boycotting the session, Sharon turned the vote into a no-confidence motion, which would have brought down his government. The ploy forced all but three Likud hard-liners into line, and he won the vote by a narrow 46-to-45 margin.

Eitam was interviewed in a Washington hotel just as the Knesset was voting in Jerusalem. “My goal here is to make it clear to the U.S. government, as well as to American Jews, my opposition to Sharon’s disengagement plan,” Eitam said. “It is a half-baked, unclear, incomprehensible plan.”

Eitam said he has found opposition to the plan not only among American Jews, but also among evangelical Christians and even within the Bush administration. White House officials, he said, “understand that if you can flee unilaterally from Gaza, then why not consent to demands for America to flee unilaterally from Iraq?” If Israel withdraws from Gaza without pacifying it, Eitam said, it will be “the first country in history to give a state to terrorism,” while fighting terrorism. “We would have no control over what happens there after we withdraw,” he said, “and I have no doubt that terrorism will surge rather than drop.” Eitam, a former army general who became head of the NRP in 2002, said he is no less an authority on security affairs than anyone in Israel, including Sharon.

Some senior Israeli security experts agree that a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would encourage Palestinians to step up violence to push Israel from the West Bank as well, though many of them argue that a rise in attempted attacks would be outweighed by the tactical advantage of creating a defensible line of separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Other officials say violence may decrease if there is no Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip and a significant reduction in military presence in the West Bank.

A majority of Israelis — 56% according to a Tel Aviv University poll published this week — support disengagement. Eitam said Israelis would support any scenario that they thought would bring quiet. Nonetheless, he warned of the repercussions of “transferring” Jewish settlers from their homes in Gaza. “If it is justified to throw out Jews from their home to create a new order, it is equally justified to move Arabs,” he said, adding that he morally opposes both.

While most American Jewish organizations are supporting Sharon’s initiative, the hawkish wing of the community leadership shares Eitam’s concerns. “I am very concerned,” said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of Religious Zionists of America. “It’s very unclear that they really know what they are doing,” he said of Israel’s government. “It’s very confusing and there doesn’t seem to be a game plan that at least amcha could understand,” using a Hebrew word for laymen.

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