Clash Seen Over Hard Line on Islamists

Groups Worried Europe, America Will Soften Stance

By Ori Nir

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Alarmed over the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections in January, a group of the nation’s largest Jewish organizations put aside their frequent disagreements this week and came together in a strong, unanimous call for the international community to isolate the Palestinian Authority once Hamas takes over.

Even as they closed ranks around the hawkish position, however, community leaders were voicing fears that they could be headed for a clash with Europe, moderate Arab states and possibly the Bush administration, which are seen as likely to soften their stance toward Hamas in the months ahead.

In private, too, several organizational leaders fretted that even Israel will reverse its position and temper its stance toward the militant Islamic group. That might leave the American Jewish advocacy groups alone in their anti-terrorist purism and force them to reverse a stance that they now present as a moral absolute.

Whatever their doubts, however, the Jewish groups are presenting a solid public front for now, with no cracks in evidence. That unity was on display this week at the annual convention of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coalition of a dozen national organizations and 120 local community councils that is usually dominated by liberals. The council, which includes such groups as Hadassah, the Anti-Defamation League and the three main synagogue unions, voted unanimously to demand severe restrictions on American aid to the Palestinian territories.

“There is unquestionably a rare and most welcome unanimity among most Jewish organizations,” said David Harris, executive director of the centrist American Jewish Committee.

“The explanation is quite simple,” Harris said. Noting widespread fears of a Hamas-led P.A. joining forces with an increasingly belligerent Iran, he said: “In both cases, there is an existential threat posed to the State of Israel. It is clear, unambiguous and therefore taken extremely seriously. There is a closing of the ranks and a sense of common purpose.”

A similarly tough line is expected next week at the annual policy conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The organization is expected to blanket Capitol Hill with thousands of delegates lobbying lawmakers for tough sanctions on Iran and on a Hamas-led Palestinian government.

The back-to-back calls for action will put a sweeping coalition of Jewish groups on record as demanding a policy — isolating Hamas unless it recognizes Israel — that has already been adopted by the Bush administration and its main international allies. Washington joined last month with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations in a decision to bar any financial aid to the Palestinian government once Hamas takes over, unless the militant group recognizes Israel and abandons terrorism.

However, Jewish organizational leaders say, signs of softening are already visible. Several pointed to the planned visit to Moscow this coming weekend of a Hamas delegation, breaking the international quarantine on the Islamic group that Israel and the United States have sought.

Observers also pointed to the rebuff handed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week by moderate Arab nations, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, when she asked them to deny aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government. Actions by moderate Arab states are often seen as an early warning sign of future action by Europe and eventually by Washington.

“Internationally, there is very little chance of maintaining a united front,” said David Twersky, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Congress.

The E.U. announced this week that it was rushing a grant of $143 million in aid to the Palestinians before Hamas assumed power. That decision was not seen as breaking ranks, however. The State Department praised the European announcement, and the major Jewish organizations did not disapprove, noting that Hamas has not taken over yet. The European move was seen as a bid to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president and leader of the rival Fatah movement.

Most of the E.U. money will be used either to pay Palestinian utility bills to Israel or to fund the U.N. agency charged with helping Palestinian refugees. About $20.7 million will go directly to the interim Palestinian government, in order to cover the salaries of some 130,000 P.A. employees and trainees, including 58,000 members of the security forces.

Several officials with American Jewish groups recently expressed concern that their efforts to bolster a united front in opposition to contacts with Hamas might be undercut by Israel. For now, the Israeli government is strongly opposed to any contacts with Hamas or with a Hamas-led government, but in the future many experts say it will have to deal with a Hamas government on day-to-day issues that impact both the Israeli and Palestinian populations, including water, the environment, public health and trade. In fact, Jewish organizational officials pointed out, some internal Israeli disagreements are already emerging on aspects of the relationship.

This week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that Abbas was “irrelevant,” implying that an international attempt to strengthen him as a counterweight to Hamas was futile. Strengthening Abbas is an American goal, which Israel reportedly agreed to support. Shortly after Livni made her statement, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said she had been “misunderstood.” Olmert said that he hopes Abbas will remain in office.

Some Jewish organizational leaders, effectively siding with Livni, are saying that assisting Abbas to weaken Hamas could actually do the opposite and put Israel on a slippery slope toward a de facto relationship with Hamas. “The Israeli government is not speaking with one voice,” said a senior official at a national Jewish group, speaking this week on condition of anonymity. “Frankly, we have been surprised before by sharp turns in Israeli policies.”

At the moment, most major Jewish organizations endorse an Aipac-backed bill now making its way through the House of Representatives to outlaw American contacts with the P.A. once Hamas takes power, and to deny financial aid to such an entity.

The Israel Policy Forum is the only Jewish group actively lobbying against the House bill, sponsored by Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and California Democrat Tom Lantos. Other dovish groups are trying to introduce changes to the bill — as is the Bush administration — to make it possible for the American government to deal with non-Hamas elements of a future Palestinian government. They hope such aid might weaken Hamas or entice it to change its positions.

The resolution adopted this week by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs calls on the United States and the international community “to maintain a policy of not dealing with or providing aid to a Palestinian Authority that is run by Hamas representatives or whose policies are guided by Hamas,” unless and until the organization takes several concrete steps, including the permanent renunciation of terrorism and a commitment to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas, according to the resolution, should also be required to recognize “Israel’s right to exist in peace and security as a Jewish state.”

The only meaningful sign of dissent came from a Boston delegate, Forward columnist Leonard Fein, who rose to oppose the resolution. He called it “draconian” and argued that it would serve as a disincentive for Palestinian moderates. But when a voice-vote was taken, the yeas resounded and there were no audible nays.

“We are taking a hawkish position,” said Twersky of AJCongress, “not because the doves are wrong but because the Palestinians have put up a wall” in the form of an elected Hamas government.

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