WASHINGTON — On the eve of back-to-back White House visits by the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, and with pressure mounting for Israeli gestures to strengthen the Palestinian leader, Washington lobbyists for Israel were keeping an uncharacteristically low profile this week.
With a handful of exceptions on the right and left, lobbyists for Israel were not speaking out either publicly or privately to preempt the pressure or to strengthen Prime Minister Sharon’s hand in his negotiations with President Bush and his senior aides.
Sharon, several Jewish activists said, has made it clear that he is not interested in creating the appearance that he is using his friends in Washington to counter the administration. “His relationship with Bush is too important to him,” said one top organizational activist.
Implementation of Bush’s “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, another pro-Israel activist said, is viewed among lobbyists for Israel as “an issue between Sharon and Bush,” which the two should handle without intervention. “We are simply following the lead of the Israelis on this,” he added.
The Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was scheduled to meet with Bush at the White House on Friday — his first visit here since taking office in April — and was expected to ask for a series of Israeli concessions. Bush and his advisers are expected to relay some of those demands to Sharon when they meet next week.
Activists with several Jewish organizations said they were further encouraged to keep a low profile by the perception that the road map was yielding positive results, including a dramatic reduction in Palestinian violence and a decline in anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media. Palestinian security services had also begun, albeit haltingly, to collect illegal weapons, activists noted.
Advocates noted that the issues currently high on the U.S.-Israeli agenda involved matters that are deeply divisive within the Jewish community, including removal of settlement outposts, altering the delineation of Israel’s West Bank security fence and the release of Palestinian prisoners. As a result, they said, centrist Jewish organizations that purport to speak for a Jewish community consensus were not likely to actively wade in.
In a gesture of support for the road map, executives of several mainstream Jewish organizations were scheduled to meet with Abu Mazen in Washington on Thursday, the day before his visit to the White House.
In addition, 10 of the 26 Jewish members of the House of Representatives were among the 71 who signed a letter to the president last week supporting his recent decision to give $20 million in aid directly to the Palestinian Authority. Jewish signers included Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, as well as Henry Waxman, Howard Berman and Jane Harman of California.
“We asked for a change and we got it,” said an aide to one Jewish signer, referring to the appointment of a new Palestinian leader following Israeli and American pressure. “We want this guy to succeed. We want him to succeed because it’s good for Israel.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the Zionist Organization of America, which opposes the road map, planned to publish advertisements in 20 newspapers this week criticizing the administration’s Palestinian aid decision. The organization also planned to stage a vigil on the Ellipse, opposite the White House, to protest Abu Mazen’s visit there Friday.
In an interview, ZOA president Morton Klein criticized the organizational leaders who were meeting with Abbas on Friday, saying Jewish leaders should not meet with a “Holocaust denier.” He was referring to a 1983 book by Abu Mazen, based on his doctoral thesis, which questioned the figure of 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. Abu Mazen has since distanced himself from views he expressed in his book but has not fully apologized.
Klein said that Jewish “defense” organizations that acquiesce in Abu Mazen’s White House visit and do not demand full Palestinian compliance with the road map’s requirements are “turning, once again, into the Jews of silence.” History, he said, “is repeating itself.” Just like the Oslo agreements, the road map “will collapse, and the only question is how many Jews will be murdered beforehand, God forbid,” Klein said. “And the Jewish community is silent,” he continued.
His comments prompted a sharp retort from the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. “History will judge me and others on whether we’re the Jews of silence,” Foxman said. “But there is no big virtue in being the Jews of noise. One has to speak with wisdom.”
Foxman said that Klein “has a problem,” which is “that he always makes it his business to tell other people what to do. And I have always found this offensive, and I continue to find it offensive.” Besides, Foxman said, “if it is okay for the prime minister of Israel and for the president (to meet with Abu Mazen), then it is certainly okay for the ADL.” Foxman is scheduled to meet with Abbas next month in Ramallah.
Klein’s comments and Foxman’s rebuttal underscored the overall sidelining of anti-road map voices on the American Jewish right in the days leading up to the Sharon and Abu Mazen’s visits.
Keeping Jewish opposition to the road map effectively under control “is a significant success for the White House,” said a congressional staffer who closely follows the administration’s Middle East policy. “Even on the Hill, opposition is almost muted.”
The administration, meanwhile, is eager to turn the passive, noninterventionist approach of the main Jewish organizations into active support, administration officials recently told foreign diplomats.
The key to cultivating public opinion supportive of the road map — both in the region and here at home — is to maintain momentum, administration officials said. Momentum, achieved by reciprocal small steps taken by Israel and the Palestinians — an idea at the heart of the road map — would show all parties involved that the process works, administration officials say, and create a dynamic of progress.