WASHINGTON — Despite American assurances that Israel will not be endangered by President Bush’s “road map” to peace — and despite Israel’s in-principle acceptance of the road map — several leading American-Jewish organizations are working to cast doubt on the plan and depict it as a threat to Israeli security.
American assurances to Israel under the road map are far more extensive than have been publicly disclosed, the Forward has learned. In a letter expressing understandings about the road map, the United States guarantees that it, not Europe or the United Nations, will oversee the monitoring of Palestinian compliance with the plan on security matters. Senior administration officials also have made a point of assuring Israel and its American supporters in recent weeks that any significant progress toward Palestinian statehood will depend on a cessation of Palestinian terrorism.
Nonetheless, some leading national Jewish organizations are voicing strong skepticism about the road map, emphasizing the demands and risks they say it imposes on Israel and minimizing its benefits. Several community officials have begun speaking of the plan as a potential “second Oslo,” referring to the ill-fated 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
“We need to be realistic and practical, because we have been down this road before,” said the national director of the Anti-Defamation
League, Abraham Foxman, referring to the Oslo agreements.
“We are concerned about many things here,” Foxman said. “It’s not enough for us to say, ‘We’re for peace, we’re for a road map, and we’re for the president’s June 24 speech.’ How are we going to get there? Who is going to be doing the leading, the monitoring? Who is going to measure performance?”
The critics are not unopposed. A group of prominent Jewish philanthropists sent a letter to congressional leaders this week expressing “concern over recent efforts to sidetrack implementation” of the plan.
To date, however, the voices of the skeptics have had more resonance. Op-ed and letters pages in Jewish weeklies have been filled with warnings of the road map’s dangers. The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, media baron Mortimer Zuckerman, has been openly dismissive of the road map, calling it a “road map to nowhere” in a March column in his U.S. News and World Report.
The Presidents Conference, in its Daily Alert newsletter, a collection of news clippings on the Middle East which is widely circulated via e-mail in the Jewish community, has flooded the community with views of the road map that are almost exclusively critical. During the last week alone, it featured four articles opposing the plan, and not one in support of it.
The Daily Alert is prepared for the Presidents Conference by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank headed by Dore Gold, a former diplomat and informal adviser to Prime Minister Sharon. The center also circulates its own position papers en masse via e-mail. One paper by Gold himself, circulated last week in response to Yasser Arafat’s acceptance of a new Palestinian Cabinet, was titled “The New Arafat-Abu Mazen Cabinet: A Roadblock to Middle East Peace.” It described the road map as “an effort on the part of the European Union, the UN, Russia, and the U.S.” and called it “surprising” that Washington would take European views into account in forming its Middle East policy.
For all their skepticism, most communal leaders maintain they are not actively opposing the road map but merely seeking to identify its possible pitfalls. “These statements are preemptive,” said one activist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s better to err on the side of caution than to wholeheartedly endorse what may turn into a second Oslo.”
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the top pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is gathering congressional signatures on a letter to the president urging him not to pressure Israel and demanding full Palestinian security compliance before Israel is required to make concessions. The current text of the road map calls for Israeli concessions simultaneously with Palestinian efforts, and the administration has rejected calls to amend it.
So far, 85 senators and 283 House members have signed the letter. But, congressional aides say, most legislators will avoid confronting the president on the issue in a more direct way.
The Aipac-backed letter drive has sparked what appears to be a competing letter in support of the road map, signed by 14 prominent Jewish philanthropists with leadership posts, past and present, in communal organizations.
The pro-road map letter was sent to the leaders of Congress. It expresses “concern over recent efforts to sidetrack implementation of the Road Map.”
The signers urged Congress to “help hasten the day when Israel will live in peace and security by supporting the Administration’s efforts to pave the road towards a viable Israeli-Palestinian agreement.”
Signers said that the letter comes mainly in response to attempts made by Jewish organizations to pressure Congress into stalling, modifying or undercutting the road map.
“This is an effort to show a slightly different point of view from what was expressed by some Jewish organizations and people in Congress,” said Joel Tauber, former executive committee chair of United Jewish Communities. “It is our feeling that President Bush has proven his being a solid friend of Israel, so he deserves the opportunity to move forward toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the support of the Jewish community.”
Asked if the letter is a response to the Aipac-backed letter drive urging the president not to pressure Israel unduly, Tauber said: “If this [the Aipac letters] were not happening, I don’t know if we would have sent our letter.”
Other signers of the pro-road map letter include former World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman, former Jewish Agency for Israel board chairman Alex Grass, New York UJA-Federation president Larry Zicklin, and the executive committee chair of the Israel Policy Forum, Presidents Conference treasurer Marvin Lender. The signers did not list their Jewish organizational titles on the letter.
At the other end of the spectrum, a handful of activists are openly opposing the plan, led by Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. In one recent “action alert” to his organization’s leadership, Klein warned that “Bush’s road map” would “lead to the creation of a Palestinian Arab terrorist state.” Klein’s organization is planning a Washington rally in May to oppose the road map, co-sponsored by the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups.
Most groups, however, are trying to walk a middle line. “For those who are in the middle, the fact that the president has such credibility on Israeli issues, the fact that he is strongly committed to the road map, and that Sharon acknowledged that he will engage on this, all these are shifting them toward greater support for the road map,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Israel itself has maintained a low profile in the debate. Sharon has been careful not to oppose the Bush administration, on which Israel depends for support in the international community. Israeli diplomats have made few public statements on the issue.
The extent of Sharon’s support within his own Cabinet is unclear. Press reports indicate that a majority of his Likud party’s 40 Knesset members have joined a new lobby formed by the Yesha settler movement to oppose the road map.
One Sharon coalition member, Tourism Minister Benny Elon of the right-wing National Union party, came to Washington this week to lobby against the road map, despite the prime minister’s acceptance of the plan. Elon was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a conference on the road map sponsored by the National Unity Coalition for Israel, a coalition consisting mostly of Evangelical Christian organizations opposed to Israeli territorial concessions. Elon was planning a swing through the Bible Belt to mobilize opposition to the road map.
A press release sent by a spokesman last week said Elon would tell audiences that “a Palestinian state in the heartland of the land of Israel will be a disaster to both the Jewish state, as well as the Palestinians.” In the release, Elon said: “I wish to explain by means of facts and maps that the ‘peace’ that the road map envisages cannot be achieved.”