WASHINGTON — As tensions grew between Israel and America this week over the Bush administration’s support for the Geneva Understandings, backers of the informal peace plan appear to be winning over some American Jewish groups, threatening to split a key pillar of Jerusalem’s support base in the United States.
In one dramatic sign of a looming rift, leaders of the country’s largest synagogue movements banded together this week in a broad coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups calling on President Bush to step up his administration’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. The coalition, dubbed the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East, includes officials of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogue movements.
The coalition held an opening press conference Tuesday in Washington, at which religious leaders appeared to advocate increased American pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians.
“How many dead Palestinians and Israelis will litter the road to peace? Who will fill the leadership vacuum?” asked Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, during the press conference. “On the backs of how many dead Israelis and Palestinians will the inevitable peace be achieved? Will President Bush act decisively with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to lessen the body count?”
Coalition members did not explicitly endorse the Geneva Understandings, but they argued that the controversial initiative could potentially serve U.S., Israeli and Palestinian interests. The press conference was held just a day after the initiative’s Israeli and Palestinian authors joined an international group of politicians and celebrities in Switzerland for what was termed a “launch ceremony.” The ceremony and the surrounding publicity have drawn intense ire from Sharon’s government, which bitterly opposes the initiative.
Official Israeli anger about the attention showered on the initiative erupted this week into a rare war of words with Israel’s main ally when Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered an unusually direct rebuke to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Olmert, considered one of Sharon’s closest confidantes, said in an interview with Israel Radio that Powell was “making a mistake” by agreeing to meet with the architects of the Geneva deal, former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
“I don’t think that he is being useful to the [diplomatic] process,” Olmert added. “This is a wrong step by a senior member of the American administration.”
Powell promptly rejected the criticism. He was set to meet with Beilin and Abed Rabbo on Friday.
In a further blow to Israel, the pair were also expected to meet in Washington with the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who is considered one of Israel’s staunchest defenders within the administration.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, told a Knesset committee in Jerusalem this week that the expected Powell meeting with the Geneva architects was nothing more than a “courtesy call” and should not be seen as damaging U.S.-Israeli relations, which he said were at their “best- ever” level, according to Israeli press reports.
On Thursday, a day before their Washington meetings, the Geneva architects were scheduled to hold a briefing in New York for Jewish communal leaders, organized by the Reform movement and facilitated by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization representing 13 national Jewish agencies and 120 local community councils. The council’s executive director, Hannah Rosenthal, said that the meeting did not represent an endorsement of the initiative, but was to serve “only as a discussion.”
Two groups, the Orthodox Union and the Anti-Defamation League, were promising to boycott the meeting, warning that their presence could be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the plan. The ADL issued a statement Monday criticizing the agreement as “a highly-political venture, which may have a negative impact on the ability of the democratically-elected government of Israel to negotiate freely with the Palestinians.”
The statement quoted the league’s national director, Abraham Foxman, as saying that the “initiative prejudges many issues that need to be resolved by the legitimate parties to the conflict.”
The Orthodox Union issued its own statement Wednesday, calling “upon the friends of Israel everywhere — especially in the United States Department of State and the United States Congress — to respect the right of a sovereign democratic ally’s leaders to guide her policies and safeguard her citizens.”
One group that was not invited to the Thursday meeting, the Zionist Organization of America, issued a statement arguing that the Geneva deal would be “suicide for Israel.”
Sharon’s chief spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin, had harsh words for American Jews who expressed public support for the Geneva Understandings. In an interview, he described the initiative as an “irresponsible operation” that would be considered a criminal offense if it were conducted by Americans under American law. Referring to the religious leaders who participated in the new interfaith coalition, Gissin said: “American Jews of various organizations are free to express their opinions. Usually they say: ‘We will follow the line of the Israeli government.’ Now, the opposition in Israel has crossed several lines” — by conducting unauthorized negotiations with the Palestinians — “so clearly American Jews are following suit.”
Two cardinals represented the Roman Catholic Church at the coalition’s press conference Tuesday. Also in attendance were representatives of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and United Methodist churches, as well as from the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ churches. Officials of national Muslim organizations, including the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Circle of North America, also attended.
Participants did not specifically call on the administration to apply pressure on the Sharon government. But in a letter sent to Bush last week, coalition leaders called on the White House to insist that the Israelis and Palestinians fulfill their diplomatic commitments and urged the president to demonstrate “resolve” and “determined leadership.”
Claiming to represent up to 100 million Americans, coalition members called on Bush to outline several key steps to be taken simultaneously by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They also called for the establishment of a clear timeline for implementing these measures and the creation of a monitoring mechanism to ascertain whether both sides had lived up to their commitments. In addition, the coalition is asking the White House to dispatch a presidential envoy to the region.
Coalition members pledged a series of actions, including a march on Washington, aimed at pressuring the White House and Congress to adopt more aggressive peacemaking activities.
Powell said that the administration has no intention of taking the lead in any decisive action to relaunch the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, until the new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, “makes a commitment to end terrorism emanating from the Palestinian community,” and until Sharon and Qurei have launched negotiations. “Once they start talking to one another, once they start to realize the road map is the only way forward,” Powell said, “they will find the United States there ready to work with both sides to encourage and to cajole both sides to meet its obligations that they have under the road map.”