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Showdown Set for Communal Debate Over Sharon’s Gaza Withdrawal Plan

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from one of its most powerful members, a key Jewish communal body is preparing to consider endorsing the disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The issue is to be debated at an upcoming October 14 meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the conference’s executive vice-chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, told the Forward. The conference is a coalition of 52 national organizations, and is commonly seen as the community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs.

Among communal insiders, it was widely believed that Hoenlein opted to hold the debate now, after Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, began voicing frustration over the conference’s failure to act earlier and approaching other organizations with his own pro-disengagement draft.

Sharon announced his disengagement plan last December and has won worldwide diplomatic support for it since then.

The decision to debate the issue is being interpreted by some liberals and centrists as a victory for advocates of Israeli compromise over hawkish opponents. Hawks are seen as having kept the conference from issuing a formal endorsement of Israeli peace moves since the Oslo process started in 1993.

Parallel to his pressing the conference on disengagement, Foxman is publicly criticizing America’s main union of Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, for failing to issue a statement that “condemns anybody who, in the name of faith, justifies killing.”

The rabbinical council issued a September 23 statement calling “upon its members, and the community at large, whether in Israel or around the world, to engage in and foster respectful and reasonable debate and discussion of the undoubtedly important issues involved.” The statement did not include a specific condemnation of the increasingly harsh rhetoric being employed by Sharon’s Orthodox critics.

Foxman was not alone in criticizing the council. “I don’t think the statement is strong enough,” said Haskell Lookstein, a leading New York Orthodox rabbi.

Lookstein, the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan, N.Y.’s affluent Upper East Side, warned that incitement against Sharon is reaching the same level as that which proceeded the 1995 assassination of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“When you have people saying that Sharon is a murderer, which is what you’re seeing in some ads… in the Orthodox community, then you have to have Orthodox rabbis stand up and say vociferously that this is not acceptable,” Lookstein said.

A supportive statement of any sort from the Conference of Presidents or a main Orthodox organization would come at a time when Sharon is fending off increasingly harsh attacks from the secular and religious right-wing camps in Israel over his plan for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of four West Bank settlements. Until now, while various Jewish organizations in America have voiced general support for Sharon’s efforts, the most visible efforts to influence Israeli public opinion have been undertaken by American groups and activists opposing the disengagement plan.

“We will present members with a draft language at our general meeting on October 14. Whether they approve it or want to consider it will be their business,” Hoenlein said.

Critics have long accused the conference, which, according to tradition operates by consensus, of tilting to the right. Liberals, as well as some centrists, have claim that opponents of territorial compromise have tended to set the conference’s agenda even though many member organizations have voiced strong support for the peace process and a two-state solution.

“The conference has 52 or 53 members, and every member is equal whether they have 3,000 members or a million members, so the extent to which it is representative is always a question,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “And it is reluctant on issues that run into resistance on the right.”

One of the leading opponents of Israeli concessions, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said that he would seek to block a vote on any proposed statement endorsing Sharon’s plan when conference members convene in mid-October. Members cannot be expected to vote on the spot, before considering and studying the proposed language, Klein said.

Hoenlein denied that the conference’s failure to debate disengagement until now reflected a political divide among the organization’s members. Rather, he said, the main issue is that member organizations had failed to forge a consensus on exactly what a statement should say and the best time to release such a document.

Hoenlein and the conference’s lay chairman, hotel heir James Tisch, have expressed support for the plan in press interviews, though the umbrella organization has not adopted a formal position.

Foxman expressed dismay over the notion that Jewish organizations could not find common ground in rallying to support the prime minister of Israel. Numerous polls have suggested that the majority of Israelis and American Jews support Sharon’s plan.

The Conference of Presidents is “the platform of the Jewish community on issues relating to Israel,” Foxman said. “Why should it be so difficult to say that the Jewish community supports the prime minister’s initiative?”

Foxman said that he has been pressing Hoenlein on the issue for months. The ADL leader denied rumors that he was pushing for a conference statement at Sharon’s behest.

Foxman said he had lined up several organizations to sign on to an independent statement, but declined to identify them. None of the major Jewish groups contacted by the Forward would confirm that they had agreed to endorse the ADL’s statement.

Foxman said he is “delighted” that the conference is set to deal with the issue, and promised to introduce ADL’s own language at the meeting with the intention of hammering out a consensus formulation accepted by an overwhelming majority of member groups. “I don’t want to compete with [Hoenlein]. I want him to do it,” Foxman said. “If a statement is approved — fine. If not, we will continue.”

The tussle between Foxman and Hoenlein appears to represent more than just a personal power clash between two of the dominant figures in organized Jewish life, communal insiders said. The jockeying between the two men reflects the hesitancy that many Jewish groups feel over the issue.

On the merits of the proposal, many Jewish organizations support the idea of withdrawing Jewish settlers and Israeli military forces from Gaza — but they question Sharon’s ability to obtain the domestic political support needed to implement the plan.

Some members of the conference said it would be inappropriate for the umbrella agency to issue a formal endorsement before the Sharon plan secures the backing of either the full Cabinet or the Knesset.

On June 6, the Cabinet approved the disengagement plan in principle, but with reservations, on the condition that the dismantlement of each settlement would be voted on separately. Sharon, however, is seeking a more solid mandate in the form of an up-or-down vote on the whole plan. He has announced his intention to bring it to a government vote on October 24, and to introduce it to the Knesset as a bill on November 3.

One national agency, the American Jewish Congress, has decided it will not sign on to a conference statement endorsing the plan “in advance of a decision of a controlling authority in the Israeli government,” said its international affairs director, David Twersky. “We will not get ahead of an official decision of the Israelis.”

The AJCongress position, according to Hoenlein, reflects the views of many other members of the conference.

Foxman rejected the notion that an Israeli Cabinet vote should not be required for the Conference of Presidents to act. “To me, the prime minister of Israel is the government of Israel,” Foxman said. “He sets the policy and as long as he’s not removed from office by a vote of non-confidence, he is the policy.”

In addition, Foxman said, the American government “has stood up in support of it — so what are we waiting for?”

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