WASHINGTON — As part of a recently launched campaign to neutralize Jewish and evangelical opposition to the Gaza disengagement plan, Israeli diplomats are reaching out to liberal American organizations that have historically aligned themselves with the peace camp in Israel.
Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Danny Ayalon, is slated to take part in a March 14 forum on Capitol Hill, hosted by Americans for Peace Now, a group that supports Israel’s dovish Peace Now movement and regularly criticizes Israeli settlement policies. The group historically has had little contact with representatives of Israel’s Likud-led governments.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a leading Likud defender of the disengagement plan, has agreed to deliver in June the keynote address at the annual dinner of the Israel Policy Forum. A New York-based organization, the forum was founded during the 1990s to support the Labor Party’s peace moves. Olmert will be the first top Likud leader to deliver the keynote address at the organization’s annual dinner.
The scheduled appearances of Ayalon and Olmert are said to be part of an intense campaign recently launched by Israeli diplomats in the United States to rally American and Jewish public support for the disengagement plan and the resumption of Israeli contacts with the Palestinian Authority. The main goal, Israeli diplomats said, is to counteract the efforts of politically conservative Jews and evangelical Christians who oppose Israel’s plan to withdraw from Gaza, and dismantle four West Bank settlements, in July.
“This is the number-one priority on the agenda of the consulates at
the moment, and it’s the task that is keeping me the busiest,” said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York.
Mekel said that in recent weeks he has met with representatives of almost all national Jewish agencies and synagogue movements, carrying one clear message: “Please do not second-guess the government of Israel or the Israeli citizens.”
In the coming weeks, Mekel added, under instructions from Jerusalem, Israeli diplomats in the United States will redouble their efforts to neutralize American foes of the disengagement.
Mekel is playing a particularly pivotal role in delivering Jerusalem’s message because he routinely meets with heads of national Jewish organizations, which for the most part are headquartered in New York.
Generally, Mekel said, his “don’t second-guess us” message is well received among American Jews, including most of the Orthodox Jews with whom he meets. “But that is not always the case,” he said. “I recently spoke to the board of the [Zionist Organization of America] and I must admit it was an unsettled meeting.”
The ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, said he rejects the Israeli argument that Jewish groups in America must support policies pushed by Jerusalem. American Jews have a right — indeed an obligation — to oppose Israeli policies they think are damaging to Israel, he said. Klein added that his group is launching a newspaper advertisement campaign this week to publicize anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish comments made by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
The ZOA is also actively lobbying in Washington against the Gaza pullout and President Bush’s efforts to send $350 million in direct P.A. aid.
Bush’s push for aid received a boost this week from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying powerhouse known as Aipac. The group’s spokesman, Josh Block, stated that “there is a historic opportunity for progress” and said Aipac supports “aid to the Palestinians with the right oversight.”
Communal leaders say that pro-disengagement forces are not being rallied. “It is therefore necessary to mobilize the majority that is supportive, and it is very important that Israeli officials will be involved in doing that,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. In turn, Foxman added, Jewish communal leaders ought to be doing more to help Israel’s government. “It is very important that the president, his administration, Congress and the American people appreciate the support of America’s Jewish community for Sharon’s plan,” he said.
Foxman suggested that soon one of the Jewish community’s main umbrella organizations would schedule a rally or leadership conference to build support for disengagement.
The Israeli political establishment only recently begun to understand the potential impact of opposition in American Jewish circles to Sharon’s plan, Israeli sources said. According to Mekel, in the past four years, Israel enjoyed the benefits of a unified Jewish community.
“We were lucky. There was unanimity that Arafat was a villain and that Israel was defending itself against Palestinian terrorism,” the diplomat said. “Things were clear and there was hardly any dissent. That was a real blessing..”
Seeking venues to convey this message, Israeli government officials are reaching out to Jewish groups with whom they have had limited contact in the past.
“The historic point in time that the Middle East is passing through right now is also being reflected in the public diplomacy efforts of Israel and American Jewish organizations,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. “There is now a broader center on issues dealing with the peace process, and organizations such as APN are a part of that center.”
The Israel Policy Forum is also portraying itself as a member of a widening political center in Israel and America that supports the disengagement plan. “Olmert has been in the forefront of those who believe in disengagement and support a two-state solution,” said the forum’s president, Seymour Reich.
Olmert could help members of the Jewish community grasp the significance of the political change in Israel, Reich said. “These are important times, and some in the community, and outside the community, have to play catch-up in terms of where this process is going,” he said.
Some on Capitol Hill are trying to slow down the peace process “because they think that they are reflective of the Jewish community,” Reich said. “But we think it isn’t so anymore. The community supports disengagement and supports a two-state solution.”