WASHINGTON — American Jewish communal leaders are warning Prime Minister Sharon that a failure to implement his Gaza pullout plan could jeopardize Jerusalem’s relations with the Bush administration.
Sharon and members of his Cabinet received this blunt assessment last week from media mogul and real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Other prominent Jewish figures recently conveyed similar messages to the Sharon government, the Forward has learned.
“If the American president comes forth in the way that this president did, in support of an Israeli initiative, and then Israel cannot deliver, it is bound to have consequences for Israel’s relationship with the administration and with Congress,” Zuckerman said in an interview with the Forward. Zuckerman, the editor-in-chief of US News & World Report and the co-publisher of the New York Daily News, added: “They have to understand that they cannot take American support for granted.”
After meeting with the prime minister and other senior Israeli officials, Zuckerman gave an extensive interview to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, stressing the importance of implementing Sharon’s plan, which includes the dismantling of all Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the West Bank. Zuckerman warned that a failure to implement the disengagement plan could lead to an internationally “imposed solution that Israel won’t be able to live with.”
Several Jewish communal leaders said that Zuckerman’s comments reflect the prevailing view among major Jewish organizations. It was “extremely important that someone of Zuckerman’s stature went public with it,” said a senior official with a Jewish organization, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You sometimes need someone like that to come out and say it.”
The decision to lobby Sharon rather than warn the White House against pressuring Israel appeared to reflect what Jewish communal leaders describe as their fundamental goal: the preservation of good relations between Jerusalem and Washington. The key to this calculation, they say, is the belief that President Bush currently sees Israel and America as partners engaged in the same war against terrorism. But now, Jewish communal leaders said, as the president is being heavily criticized on his policy in Iraq, bad news from Israel is only compounding America’s troubles in the Middle East.
Although pro-Israel activists in Washington insist they have not received explicit warnings from the administration, they say the White House is increasingly impatient, as well as disappointed, with Sharon and the Israeli political system. After a White House meeting April 14, Bush spoke out in support of Sharon’s plan and rewarded him with public assurances that Israel would not be expected to return to the pre-1967 borders or to resettle Palestinian refugees.
Since securing the guarantees from Bush, however, Sharon has seen his plan rejected by Likud voters in a May 2 referendum. He failed to win the support of his Cabinet.
Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, was in Washington on Tuesday to assure Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, that the Israeli premier was still fully committed to implementing the plan in its entirety, Israeli diplomats said. Weisglass, they added, attempted to explain why Sharon was not able to bring his plan up for a vote at the Cabinet meeting Sunday. “It’s not an easy thing to explain, if I may say so,” Zuckerman said.
Rice reportedly told Weisglass that the President would support only the full plan — not a watered-down version, like the alternative proposals being suggested by several members of Sharon’s Cabinet.
Jewish communal leaders are concerned that Sharon’s inability to act swiftly and decisively to implement his plan, particularly at a time when America’s credibility in the Middle East is eroding, will be interpreted by the administration as a sign of disloyalty toward Bush. One organizational official said that at this turbulent time in the Middle East, “Sharon is losing an opportunity to be seen as a real partner to the president.” The official added: “If you can’t deliver, what kind of partner are you?”
A growing concern, both among pro-Israel activists in Washington and Israeli officials, is that a diplomatic vacuum created by Sharon’s failure to implement his plan would invite American and international pressure on Israel.
“It would be helpful for all concerned if the prime minister would heed Mort Zuckerman’s loving message,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “If [Sharon’s] plan does not go forward, and it is not replaced by any other progress, the repercussions could be serious.”
The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, also urged Sharon to get his plan passed, but expressed doubts that a failure to do so would severely harm American-Israel relations. Malcolm Hoenlein, the powerful executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, which is the community’s main pro-Israel umbrella organization, declined to criticize Zuckerman’s remarks, saying only that not everyone agrees with his take.
Zuckerman said he was not carrying a message from Bush or from anyone else in the administration. “I was acting on my own,” he said, “based on my own knowledge of the politics of this country.”