As Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert wages a diplomatic campaign to shore up international support for his proposed “realignment” plan, leaders of the Orthodox Union in the United States are warning that he could face a storm of protest if he fails to address their concerns.
In an op-ed published last week in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, both the president and the Washington-based public policy director of the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox organization in America, called on the prime minister to reach out to Orthodox rabbis, lay leaders and grass-roots activists who vehemently oppose disengagement from the West Bank. While many members of the American Orthodox community previously objected to the pullout from Gaza, the opposition to a West Bank withdrawal is expected to be even stronger, as religious Zionists view the territory as the heart of biblical Israel.
In their June 16 op-ed, the O.U.’s president, Stephen Savitsky, and its public policy director, Nathan J. Diament, predicted that despite drawing few participants, a recent Washington rally protesting the prime minister’s plan “is a harbinger of what may come as the implementation of realignment nears, should Olmert fail to engage the community in the United States.”
The O.U. — despite pressure from Israeli settlers and activists in America — did not come out against the Gaza pullout, instead maintaining its policy of leaving security and territorial decisions to the elected government of Israel. Officials at the organization have indicated that, for now, they plan to follow a similar path with future disengagements, while pressing the Israeli government to do more to address Orthodox concerns and objections.
“The stakes are higher, the feelings are very deep and how things play out will depend upon the circumstances,” Diament told the Forward. The response from the American Orthodox community, he added, “will be based on what kind of outreach and discussion have led up to that, and that’s in the hands of leaders like Mr. Olmert.”
The O.U.’s warning comes as Olmert seeks to secure American backing for unilateral withdrawal, which served as the underpinning of his election campaign. On a recent diplomatic trip to Washington, Olmert gave assurances to President Bush that he would pursue bilateral talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before taking any unilateral steps to draw Israel’s borders.
Olmert met with a select group of American Jewish communal leaders during his visit, but a rotation system left the O.U. without a representative at the meeting.
According to Diament, the obvious opportunity for Olmert to address members of the American Orthodox community would be in November at the O.U.’s upcoming biennial, which is taking place in Jerusalem. Participants are expected to discuss whether to stick with the O.U.’s general policy of deference to the government.
Some critics contend that because Olmert’s nascent Kadima party holds only 29 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, Olmert does not have the public mandate necessary to move forward with his plan for a West Bank pullout.
“Look at the number of people who voted, and the number of people who voted for his party. Maybe if Sharon had been part of the process, maybe he would have gotten a mandate,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, former president of the O.U. who now maintains his own blog. “[Olmert] doesn’t have a majority of the seats or anywhere near it.”
The strong Orthodox objections to a West Bank withdrawal underscore a wider crisis among religious Zionists that has been escalating ever since Sharon ordered the Gaza pullout.
“What’s happening now basically is that the religious Zionism that everybody was so excited about that was created in a modern political sense in 1900 by the creation of the Mizrahi movement has perhaps lost its course,” Ganchrow said. “It’s very depressing.”