WASHINGTON — Angered by a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel, pro-Israel hawks here are stepping up their criticisms of President Bush’s “road map” to peace, claiming that the violent surge proves the plan’s dangers to Israel.
The violence prompted stern warnings to the president from both Jewish and Christian groups opposed to the road map, including the Zionist Organization of America and a group of Christian conservatives organized by former White House aide Gary Bauer, president of American Values.
There was pressure, too, for the Orthodox Union to speak out against the road map for the first time. Members of the executive committee of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs were expected to press for the group to break with the president on the issue during a meeting this week, though senior O.U. officers predicted the effort would fail because it would put the group at odds with the Israeli government, which has not rejected the road map.
Supporters of Bush’s plan were also escalating their efforts this week, arguing that the latest violence — including five suicide bombings in the space of 48 hours last weekend — proved the urgency of steps to bring the two sides together. Forty members of Congress signed a letter to Bush this week urging him to press forward with the road map. Separately, 100 major Democratic donors and activists, organized by the Israel Policy Forum, signed a letter to the party’s nine presidential contenders urging them to back the president’s plan.
The flurry of pro- and anti-road map activity pointed to a paradoxical dilemma facing the president as he plans his next moves: His strongest opposition comes from political allies whose enmity could cost him in 2004, while his strongest support comes from liberal groups that are unlikely to reward him politically for his efforts.
Hawks predicted that the president would eventually move in their direction.
“These guys” — the pro-road map liberals — “are not Bush’s friends,” said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the hawkish Religious Zionists of America and head of his own pro-Israel political action committee. “These are Democrats, the people who are funding Lieberman, Gephardt and Graham. They don’t have the president’s best interests at heart.”
Ganchrow predicted that the White House would pay more attention to the condemnations of the road map that emerged from Sunday’s gathering of conservative Jewish and Christian activists in Washington. Billed as the “Interfaith Zionist Leadership Summit,” the event drew about 400 participants and was sponsored by several Jewish and Christian groups that oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.
Despite the intense opposition to the road map within Bush’s political base, the president stepped up his personal involvement in the peace process this week. On Tuesday he spoke by phone for the first time with new Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, urging him to take action against terrorists.
Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, though, accused the administration of “trying to have it both ways.”
“The president’s advisers are trying to distance him from the road map because they sense it is politically and substantively a problem for him,” Weiner said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Indeed, the ripple of anger among Jewish conservatives threatened to boil over into an open rift between the president and some of his strongest supporters in the Jewish community, most of whom have until now avoided confronting him on his peace plan.
Meanwhile, within the organized Jewish community the recent series of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis is fueling debate over the road map.
The ZOA, which has publicly opposed the road map since it first surfaced last year and has not hesitated to criticize Bush for advancing it, sent a harshly worded telegram to the president Monday. The ZOA urged Bush to cut all American contacts with the Palestinian Authority and drop his support of the road map, which the group says will lead to the creation of a “terrorist state.”
Supporters of the road map counter that the recent bombings underline the need for the plan and a more active American role in the peace process. “These suicide bombings underscore the reality that a military solution alone will not end terrorism,” said Deborah Wasserman, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum. “Diplomacy is also required. We hope Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush will quickly reschedule their meeting and find ways to move forward on the road to peace and security.”
Another top American Jewish supporter of the road map, Americans for Peace Now President and CEO Debra DeLee, argued that the bombings “were aimed in part against Prime Minister Abbas and his efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority and begin implementing the road map.”
DeLee called on Bush to “personally encourage” Sharon to move forward with the road map.
Such calls for administration action, however, appeared to be rejected by the Jewish community’s main pro-Israel organizational umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The group’s executive vice-chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, said that the bombings demonstrate the need for the Palestinians to stop terrorism before Israel moves forward on the road map. “The Palestinians clearly are not doing their part, and it is an intolerable situation,” Hoenlein said. “These attacks underscore that the cycle begins with the violence.”
In contrast to Hoenlein, the president of the top pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, steered clear of directly mentioning the road map in a statement released after the recent spate of bombings.
“Instead of meeting with President Bush here in Washington, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be attending funerals of innocent Israeli civilians,” said Aipac’s outgoing president, Amy Friedkin.
“This is a time of great sorrow and what could be an important moment of truth,” she said. “This is a test. Abu Mazen must decide if he is a partner for peace and thus willing to confront the terrorists and bring an end to the violence, or will he be relegated to the dustbin of history as just one more Palestinian who missed the opportunity to make peace?”
Given such remarks, and the administration’s apparent commitment to pushing ahead with the road map, a White House showdown with Jerusalem and Jewish groups appeared increasingly possible. One likely flash point is the plan’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze.
Since Secretary of State Colin Powell returned from his Middle East trip last week, administration officials have indicated that the president is expecting Sharon to commit to a settlement freeze. In an interview with an Egyptian television station last week, Powell said that Bush realizes the issue of the settlements has to be tackled soon “because the settlements that are there make it difficult to envision what a Palestinian state would look like.”
As a result, Powell said, the settlement issue “has to be dealt with earlier” than problems posed by Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Settlements “cannot be dealt with in final stages,” Powell said. “You have to know what you are going to do with respect to settlements before you can get to even discussions or descriptions of what a provisional state with provisional boundaries would look like.”