WASHINGTON — As settlers and their supporters ratchet up efforts to stop Israel’s planned Gaza pullout, Jerusalem is intensifying its efforts to build support for the plan and neutralize any American Jewish opposition.
Last week, in a conference call with leaders of Jewish organizations, Israel’s minister of construction, Yitzhak Herzog, urged American Jews not to assist Israeli opponents of the plan and to show “unequivocal support” for the pullout. Herzog’s conference call was billed as the first in a series of pro-disengagement addresses aimed at members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
In a subsequent interview with the Forward, Herzog said, “There are quite a few in America who assist these [anti-disengagement] militant groups.” He added that American Jews should resist calls to offer financial support to the “very strong nucleus within the settler’s camp that will do anything possible to derail this process by way of demonstrations or refusal to cooperate or even usage of force.”
The push to bolster pro-disengagement forces and discredit American Jewish opponents of the plan comes as Israel launches its push for more than $2 billion in American aid to help cover the costs of the Gaza pullout and to develop areas on Israel’s periphery. A large group of Israeli officials unveiled the request during a July 11 meeting with senior Bush administration officials.
About one-third of the proposed package would go to fund the relocation of Israeli military facilities from Gaza. Most of the sum, however, will be used to develop Israel’s Negev and Galilee, the country’s respective southern and northern peripheries, to which the government hopes to attract tens of thousands of Jews in coming years.
Pro-Israel lobbying groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are launching a campaign to ensure support for Israel’s aid request to cover the costs of disengagement. Aipac’s leaders met with Sharon and discussed the aid request earlier this week.
The Bush administration has indicated that it will support such a request. Pro-Israel activists in Washington say they have initial indications of strong congressional support for the aid request.
In recent days, as disengagement opponents have rallied their forces, Israeli officials have been addressing centrist Jewish organizations in an attempt to solidify American support for the disengagement plan. At the same time, Israeli officials are trying to assuage the concerns of Jewish organizations, such as the Orthodox Union, that have reservations about the plan but have not spoken out directly against it.
Herzog, in his conference call with leaders of Jewish organizations, said that he hoped the groups would take a stand against the tactics of the anti-disengagement movement.
“I believe there is a very strong right-wing American influence on some of those demonstrators and saboteurs that has gone way beyond what you’d call normal behavior under such circumstances,” Herzog said, “and I wish the American Jewish community would take a stand on that.”
In his interview with the Forward, Herzog alluded to the civil disobedience campaign of disengagement foes, as well as to an incident two weeks ago in which a group of settlers in Gaza threw rocks at a wounded Palestinian teenager, critically injuring him.
The first Israeli soldier to be convicted of refusing to carry out orders related to dismantling settlements was Avi Bieber, an Orthodox Jew from Passaic, N.J. Bieber was sentenced this week to 56 days in jail for refusing to take part in the demolition of vacant buildings in Gaza.
Herzog’s comments reflect how the escalating hostility between the organized settlers’ movement and the government of Prime Minister Sharon is spilling over into the American Jewish community. That spillover is particularly evident in the Orthodox community, a large segment of which strongly opposes disengagement.
“Both sides are demonizing each other” and that mutual demonization is inducing a state of “schizophrenia” in America’s Orthodox community, said Nathan Diament, head of the Washington office of the O.U., the nation’s largest Orthodox organization.
Last week, the O.U., which represents about 1,000 congregations, issued a first-of-its-kind statement on the disengagement, evidently trying to address both Sharon supporters and disengagement opponents within the O.U.’s constituency.
The O.U. statement says that in recent months the organization has been focusing on making “the concerns of our constituents known to Israeli and American government officials in a forceful and effective fashion,” including in “private, in person meetings” with senior officials. Recently, O.U. officials met with President Bush’s chief Middle East adviser, the National Security Council’s Elliott Abrams, and with Sharon’s media adviser, Raanan Gissin. They also sent private letters to Bush and Sharon, laying out the concerns of O.U. members, including worries about security risks posed by disengagement and the humanitarian toll on the settlers who will be forced to leave their homes.
The O.U. has resolved not to oppose Sharon or his disengagement plan — but it has not endorsed the policy. “We are trying to serve our constituency, which is divided, in a concrete and constructive way,” said Diament.
Several major Jewish organizations and communal umbrella groups, meanwhile, are working to promote disengagement. In addition to the Presidents Conference hosting Herzog and taking other steps, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs is planning to organize conference calls with representatives of the Israeli government that support the disengagement plan. The public-affairs council, a consultative group that coordinates the policies of 13 national agencies and 123 local Jewish community-relations councils, will also work to build support for the plan in communities throughout the nation, said the organization’s acting executive director, Martin Raffel.
This week, leaders of the Anti-Defamation League — which for the past year has urged Jewish organizations to express public support for the disengagement plan — met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank. The meeting took place just moments before a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israelis and injured 90 at a Netanya shopping mall.
The ADL’s national chair, Barbara Balser, and the organization’s national director, Abraham Foxman, discussed with Abbas ways to reduce Palestinian violence and incitement. Although they made progress toward establishing mechanisms to fight intolerance in the Palestinian community, the ADL leaders took issue with Abbas’ failure to confront militant, armed Palestinian groups, Foxman told the Forward. Abbas explained that he wants to “exhaust all the possibilities of dialogue” with the militant groups before he resorts to confronting them by force, Foxman said.
“I told Abbas these groups were sticking their fingers in his eye by saying publicly that they don’t want to be a partner to seeking reconciliation,” Foxman said. But Abbas replied that he has not given up using words to convince groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to give up violence.
Referring to the terrorist attack in Netanya, Foxman said, “We came out of the meeting and saw what this results in.”
“It was a good conversation but it was like a cow giving milk and when it’s finished it picks up its hind leg and kicks it over,” Foxman said.
Despite the frustration, however, Foxman said he is convinced that working with Abbas to advance the peace process is an imperative. “We’ve got to keep trying,” he said.
The ADL this week published the results of a poll showing what the organization describes as a high level of support among Americans for Sharon’s pullout plan. The results fly in the face of the results of a recent poll taken by the Zionist Organization of America, which showed that most Americans oppose the plan.
The president of the ZOA, Morton Klein, enlisted three statistics experts who accused the ADL of asking the question in a leading manner that was “politically motivated.” Foxman called the accusation “absolute nonsense,” and said that the question regarding the disengagement was reinforced by other data in the ADL poll and in a series of other recent polls.
The ADL poll did not directly question respondents on whether they supported the disengagement plan, instead asking if they viewed it is a “bold step for peace.” Seventy-one percent said they did.