Abbas, Jewish Leaders Talk About Peace

By Ori Nir

Published August 01, 2003, issue of August 01, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — A meeting between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and about 50 Jewish community leaders in Washington last week left most of the activists convinced of Abbas’s commitment to peace. The meeting also underscored the growing support for President Bush’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative among the Jewish community and the growing influence, in the community, of staunch supporters of the “road map.”

Held at a Washington hotel July 24, the meeting with Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, was followed by a meeting between a smaller group of Jewish activists and Abu Mazen’s security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.

The two meetings left Jewish participants with a clear impression that Abu Mazen and Dahlan “have a genuine vision of peace, and are serious about it,” said Michael Bohnen, chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which co-sponsored the meetings with the Israel Policy Forum.

Bohnen noted that he received a positive impression despite Abu Mazen’s lack of personal charisma and his firm refusal to commit himself to a forceful confrontation with Palestinian terrorist organizations.

According to several participants in the meeting, which was closed to the media, Abu Mazen said he did not intend to confront organizations such as Hamas, which he never mentioned by name. Instead, he said, he plans to let such organizations run their social-service networks and encourage them to transform themselves into political parties. He did not commit himself to dismantling the groups’ terrorist infrastructure or even to disarming them forcefully.

Abu Mazen did say, however, that he is determined to assert a “monopoly of power” under the aegis of a “single Palestinian Authority.”

When pressed by columnist Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, who organizers said had been invited as a “special guest,” to describe how he plans to establish his control over the violent factions, Abu Mazen said he and his aides are “committed to enforcing the rule of law,” but he declined to elaborate on how he plans to enforce the law.

Dahlan, by contrast, was said to be more forceful and more specific in his remarks on rooting out terrorism. Participants refused to relay any quotations from the meeting, but according to several of those who attended, he made it clear that he will use force — if and when needed — to fight terrorism.

“He left no doubt that he is not at all reluctant to confront Hamas,” said one of the Jewish activists who met with Dahlan.

Abu Mazen opened his meeting by shaking hands individually with each person in attendance. That was followed by a congratulatory welcome statement from the chairman of the Israel Policy Forum, Connecticut philanthropist Marvin Lender. “Because you see the future of your people in these progressive terms, we see a future for Israel that looks better and more secure than it has in a long time,” Lender told him.

The meeting with Abu Mazen was attended by representatives of a wide spectrum of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah, B’nai B’rith International, the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Jewish federations of Washington, New York and Boston, the JCPA, the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and others.

Visibly missing, organizers noted, were representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization representing 54 major Jewish groups, including most of those at the meeting; senior officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington’s pro-Israel lobby, and representatives of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. All three organizations had been invited to send representatives.

No invitation was extended to the Zionist Organization of America, which organizers said was considered antagonistic and potentially disruptive. The ZOA was planning to stage a public demonstration against Abu Mazen in Washington the following day.

A senior vice president of the Orthodox Union, Richard Stone, told the Forward that he had decided to decline the invitation after consulting with colleagues. “My instinct was that I didn’t know who would attend and what would be the tenor of the meeting,” Stone said. He noted that his organization disagrees on many issues with the Israel Policy Forum, the event’s main organizer, and attending could have been interpreted as signing on to the forum’s approach.

A spokesperson for Aipac said the organization had been seeking a private meeting with Abu Mazen, and until close to the time of the meeting was still hoping to meet with Abu Mazen separately. The spokesperson did not say why a representative was not sent regardless, but pointed out that Aipac senior staffers did meet with the Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad.

The executive vice chairman of the President’s Conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, said neither he nor any of his colleagues could attend because the meeting conflicted with another meeting scheduled in New York with the president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner.

The Forward has learned, however, that Hoenlein told several of his colleagues that he declined to attend because he did not want to be placed in a situation of implicitly supporting Abu Mazen. Interviewed by the Forward several days after the event, after having been briefed on the exchange with the Palestinian leader, Hoenlein said the participants gave Abu Mazen an “easy ride” by not posing sufficiently difficult questions or challenging him when he seemed to dodge tough issues.

In response, the founding executive vice president of the Israel Policy Forum, Jonathan Jacoby, said: “Nothing could be further from the truth, given the people who asked and what they asked. At a time when the Bush administration is working so hard to build bridges and facilitate better communication, it’s really unfortunate to hear this sort of insinuation.”

In fact, numerous participants said they had been disappointed by several of Abu Mazen’s replies. When asked about the release of Palestinian prisoners, Abu Mazen assured his audience that those released in the past serve as a key constituency for peace and that they seldom return to violent activity. Asked about anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian public arena, he replied that the Palestinian side had ceased to engage in such provocation, but the Israelis had not.

When asked about the smuggling of illegal weapons from Egypt into Gaza, Abu Mazen reportedly replied that most of the illegal weapons in the Palestinian areas actually originate in Israel and find their way to the West Bank and Gaza thanks to cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian criminals.

Several participants said that while Abu Mazen’s answers did not always satisfy them, the mere fact that Israel had a Palestinian partner for peace after three years of violence was, as several put it, “a breath of fresh air.” The phrase was also used to congratulate Abu Mazen at the meeting by former ambassador Richard Schifter, chairman of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office.

Boston philanthropist Alan Solomont said Abu Mazen’s “unambiguous commitment to a peaceful solution” was impressive, particularly given his “very fragile position.” Asked about Abu Mazen’s reluctance to commit himself to a confrontation with terrorists, Solomont said: “Show me the alternative. For the last three years we have seen the alternative,” namely violence and suffering. Abu Mazen, he said, “is the partner that we have sought, with whom we can pursue peace.”

A Palestinian activist in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting with the Jewish community leaders was “very successful” and could serve as a foundation for building a better relationship between the Palestinian leadership and the American Jewish leadership.

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