WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Sharon has no plans to rebuke a senior minister in his Cabinet who publicly lambasted President Bush’s Middle East policy in a New York briefing this week and stated — incorrectly, it appears — that he had the support of a ranking presidential adviser.
The minister, Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party, slammed Bush’s Middle East “road map” Monday in a talk to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, declaring that the president’s plan was “worse than the Oslo accords.” According to attendees, Eitam told the 30 communal leaders present that Israel could never accept a Palestinian state, a key element in Bush’s “vision” for the Middle East.
Moreover, attendees said, Eitam declared that he had been encouraged to fight the road map by no less a figure than Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory panel.
Perle, in an interview, denied having sent such a message to Eitam. He told the Forward that he was generally supportive of Bush’s Middle East policies. “I don’t know where that comes from,” Perle said. “I find this very puzzling. That is much too crude a statement for me to make.”
Eitam reportedly told the Jewish leadership group that he had received a message from Perle urging Israel to reject the road map and arguing that Jerusalem should not negotiate with terrorists, just as the United States refused to negotiate with Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.
While Perle appeared distressed to learn of Eitam’s remarks, which directly attacked the policies of both the Bush administration and the Israeli government, Sharon’s top spokesman told the Forward that Eitam would not face rebuke from the prime minister. On the contrary, said the spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin, Sharon “does not make an issue out of” such speeches by Cabinet members.
The prime minister, Gissin said, views the road map as merely a “framework,” not an accord or a binding government resolution. “Whoever among the ministers has reservations, may raise them and express them,” Gissin said, “as long as these reservations concede that the majority in the Cabinet adopted the road map, alongside the 14 reservations” that Israel posed as a condition to its accepting the plan.
Gissin said that while Sharon did not object to his ministers visiting the United States to oppose the road map, he had not made an effort to send more emissaries to “sell” the road map to American Jews because the peace plan “is an egg that hasn’t hatched.”
“We have not yet reached the bridge that leads to hard decisions,” Gissin said. Since the road map is structured as a sequential process, Gissin added, nurturing public opinion in support of it is also a process.
A senior Israeli source close to Sharon listed two reasons why the prime minister thinks it is important to allow his ministers to speak their minds. First, such permissiveness allows disgruntled ministers to “let off steam” and keeps them in the coalition. The other reason is that it helps fend off American pressure by reminding the administration that Sharon faces pressure from his own right flank.
Still, several American Jewish leaders complained that they were “confused” by Sharon’s willingness to have members of his own Cabinet criticize a plan that he claims to support.
“We have a government [in Israel] that supports the road map, and then we have a minister in that government who comes to speak to American Jews and expresses the strongest possible opposition to the road map and makes remarks about the prime minister himself that are at best equivocal, and in some ways exceedingly critical,” said the leader of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is a vocal supporter of American efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“At the very least, it is a mixed message,” said Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “Someone who is listening to that walks away with a conclusion of confusion. Is it a problem? Of course it’s a problem.… In fact, it’s quite extraordinary that this happens.”
Several community leaders argued that both Israel and the Presidents Conference should work harder to educate the organized Jewish community on Sharon’s policy toward the new peace plan.
Public information coming from major Jewish organizations is widely seen as dominated by negative assessments of Arab and Palestinian intentions, which have the effect of weakening, rather than strengthening, support for the president’s peace plan.
“They should both do more” to explain why the plan should be supported, said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, or ARZA. “I cannot remember when a member of the Cabinet spoke [to the Presidents Conference] in support of the [Israeli] government’s position endorsing the road map.”
The conference’s top professional, Malcolm Hoenlein, said he has attempted to expose his group, an umbrella organization representing some 50 Jewish organizations, to a variety of Israeli views on the road map. He noted that in the next two weeks, conference members are due to hear from several Israeli officials, including Gissin, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, army chief of staff General Moshe Ya’alon and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Daniel Ayalon, all senior officials who may be expected to represent the government’s policies. Additionally, Hoenlein said, Shimon Peres, the chairman of Israel’s opposition Labor Party, is expected to address the conference soon.
“The government has various spokespeople and we are happy to give them all a podium to speak,” Hoenlein said.
During his turn at the conference’s podium, according to several sources in attendance, Eitam said that Israel could never accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and that the Palestinians should therefore push for a different solution. Eitam reiterated his longstanding proposal for a Palestinian state to be created in Jordan and the Sinai desert.
The minister claimed to have Perle’s support for at least some of his views.
Perle, widely considered a leading architect of the administration’s foreign policy, told the Forward that Bush’s vision of a two-state solution, as presented in his June 24, 2002 speech, is “quite sound.”
“My position is that everything depends on performance on the Palestinian side,” Perle said. He added that since not enough time has elapsed since the introduction of the road map to gauge Palestinian performance, it is too early to assess the success of the plan.
In an interview, Eitam continued to maintain that he had indeed received a message from Perle, although not directly. Eitam said Perle had conveyed the message through people who he knew were going to talk with the Israeli minister. Eitam said that these people told him Perle was “very, very, very concerned about the road map.”
Eitam said he still believes that Perle shares his view that the Bush administration’s policy on terrorism suffers from a “double standard.”
On one hand, Eitam explained, the administration fights a justified, unwavering war on terrorism worldwide. But then it pushes Israel to accept a road map “that to me looks more like compromising with terrorism than like striving for peace,” Eitam said.
“Unfortunately,” Eitam said, “when it comes to Israel’s issues, you hear voices of only one side in the American arena: the voices of the State Department, and not the voices which were influential in shaping the U.S. policy on Iraq” — voices, he said, such as Perle’s.
Eitam said he would expect American Jews to “express a moral message — more moral than political — that evil is evil is evil and terror is terror is terror.
“When terrorism kills Americans it is legitimate to go to the end of the world and topple a regime and occupy a state and send hundreds of thousands of soldiers and put the faces of its wanted terrorists on playing cards, to make clear that terror regimes will not stand,” Eitam said. “The same is morally legitimate and correct when it comes to the Palestinian terrorism.”
Eitam is not the first Israeli Cabinet minister to lobby in the United States against the road map. In May, Sharon gently scolded his tourism minister, Benny Elon of the far-right National Union party, for lobbying against the plan during meetings with members of Congress and leaders of the Evangelical Christian community. But Sharon did not publicly rebuke other ministers, including Uzi Landau and Limor Livnat, both of the Likud, after they publicly criticized the road map during recent visits to the United States.