WASHINGTON — With American and international support building for an alternative Middle East peace plan opposed by Prime Minister Sharon, several Jewish groups stepped up their attacks on the initiative and its supporters.
Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America publicly rebuked Secretary of State Colin Powell this week for sending a congratulatory letter to the architects of the of the so-called “Geneva Accord,” former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also drew sharp criticism from ADL for his public support of the plan.
The Geneva initiative drew strong praise, however, from Senator Dianne Feinstein, a leading Jewish lawmaker. The California Democrat urged the administration to adopt the accord as a way to avoid a possible “global clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world. Israel and its key backers here reject the claim that Islamic hostility is linked to Israeli policies or actions.
That linkage has received yet another high-profile endorsement, however, this one from George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist. In a rare appearance before a Jewish group, Soros argued that Israeli policies contributed to a global spike in antisemitism. His remarks drew sharp condemnation from several Jewish communal leaders.
“There is a resurgence of antisemitism in Europe,” Soros said in a November 5 address to the Jewish Funders Network. “The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that.”
“If we change that direction, then antisemitism also will diminish,” Soros said. “I can’t see how one could confront it directly.” He acknowledged that his own philanthropy and work in finance had fueled antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Soros’s remarks and the high-profile Washington endorsements of the Geneva deal came just days after the Bush administration’s leading neoconservative hawk, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, expressed support for a similar, informal peace plan, this one formulated by a former Israeli Shin Bet security service chief, Ami Ayalon, and a Palestinian academic, Sari Nusseibeh.
Powell’s and Wolfowitz’s comments are described by close observers of the administration as a reflection of a growing unease among the president’s aides with what critics call his “withdrawal” from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Critics say Bush has virtually dropped the peace process from his public agenda. Last week the president delivered a major speech on fostering democracy in the Middle East and failed to mention the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations even once.
Numerous administration officials have told reporters in recent conversations that anxiety is growing within the administration’s middle ranks over the standstill in negotiations. The anxiety is based on a twofold fear, one State Department official said. First, officials fear that without diplomatic movement, the situation on the ground will severely deteriorate. The second fear, he said, is that the standstill – and the impression that America has withdrawn from actively pursuing a two-state solution – may hamper efforts to stabilize Iraq and reduce anti-American feelings in other parts of the Arab world.
Feinstein and Soros, the latest additions to the growing list of prominent officials and observers from Israel and the United States who argue that the breakdown in the peace process threatens American interests across the globe, echoed this concern. That view sharply contradicts the arguments put forth by Prime Minister Sharon and his allies, who reject the suggestion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for the mounting anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world and argue that no significant concession should be made by Jerusalem until the Palestinians crack down on terror.
Feinstein weighed in on the debate last week while addressing a group of journalists and Middle East policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Worldwide, this crisis remains the rallying cry for Muslim extremists,” Feinstein said. She added: “I don’t believe that waiting for a cessation of all terrorist attacks makes sense.… The absence of hope on the Palestinian side, the diminution of the well-being of Palestinian people have just put the level of fanaticism as high as I have ever seen it in my lifetime, and it doesn’t make sense to continue this way.”
Feinstein urged the administration to adopt the Geneva plan and use it to promote Middle East peace.
As it turns out, Powell had sent a letter to Beilin and Abed Rabbo, dated November 4, beginning “Dear Yossi and Yasser.”
“Projects such as yours are important in helping to sustain an atmosphere of hope in which Israelis and Palestinians can discuss mutually acceptable resolutions to the difficult issues that confront them,” Powell wrote.
The plan outlines a detailed peace agreement that includes a precise border between Israel and a Palestinian state, a division of Jerusalem into two capitals, control of holy places and a complex plan for Palestinian refugees. Palestinians would agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and to end their conflict with it. Largely the Swiss government financed the negotiations, with some aid from Japan.
Powell’s letter was released last week by a Beilin spokesman in Jerusalem and confirmed by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Boucher told reporters that although Powell does not endorse any of the specific formulations of the Geneva Accord, “We’ve been encouraged that Israelis and Palestinians are trying to start addressing these important issues.”
In response to Powell’s letter, the ADL fired off its own letter to the secretary of state, urging him not to endorse “informal Middle East peace initiatives.” The November 10 letter, signed by the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, and its newly elected lay chair, Barbara Balser, cautioned that such statements from “high-profile members” of the administration could “diminish the negotiating position of the democratically elected government of Israel” and “weaken current peace efforts.”
Four days earlier, criticizing Annan — before Powell’s letter was made public — Foxman was much harsher. Addressing leaders of his organization November 6 at a convention in Manhattan, Foxman described Annan’s public support of the Geneva initiative as “an arrogance which borders on disrespect for the Jewish state.”
The ZOA criticized Powell for supporting a “rogue operation to promote a plan that pushes Israel back to the indefensible pre-1967 borders and tears Jerusalem in half.”
Last week, the ZOA lambasted Wolfowitz for voicing support during a speech at Georgetown University for the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan and the accompanying grassroots campaign to gather Palestinian and Israeli signatures in support of it. Their plan calls for a Palestinian state with borders based on the 1967 lines and a partition of Jerusalem, but does not allow for the return of any Palestinian refugees to Israel.
Wolfowitz received support from the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that advocates vigorous U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making efforts. “Although some may take issue with you and even accuse you, as they have in the past, of not sufficiently supporting Israel, we understand that the opposite is the case,” wrote the chair of the forum’s executive committee, bagel magnate Marvin Lender, and the group’s executive director, Debra Wasserman. “It is no act of friendship to stand back and allow the deadly status quo to continue.”