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Rightists Set To Honor Pullout Booster

A hawkish Jewish organization that helped lead the charge against the Israeli pullout from Gaza is bestowing its top honor on one of the most vocal proponents of disengagement from the once-disputed territory.

The Zionist Organization of America, which has harshly criticized the American-backed peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is giving its annual Louis Brandeis award to Mort Zuckerman, a publishing tycoon and a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Zuckerman is, among other things, the publisher of the New York Daily News and the editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report.

In 2004, at a plenum of the Presidents Conference, Zuckerman presented the view supporting the Israeli government’s controversial plan to forcibly remove more than 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza, while Morton Klein, the ZOA’s international president, spoke on behalf of the opposition.

After his stint as chairman of the Presidents Conference, a 51-member umbrella organization widely seen as the Jewish community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs, Zuckerman flew to Israel and urged then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to follow through on his earlier pledge to President Bush to pull Israeli forces out of Gaza. Zuckerman argued that the Israeli premier could not break his word to such a staunchly pro-Israel president.

The ZOA award, in recognition of significant contributions to Israel and the Jewish people, will be presented to Zuckerman at a $450-per-ticket fundraising dinner on November 19 co-chaired by two other recent chairmen of the Presidents Conference, James Tisch, CEO of Loews Corporation, and Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund in America and an avid art collector who has advocated for the restitution of works looted by Nazis.

The dinner’s heavyweight roster is something of a coup for the ZOA, which is often painted by critics as a right-wing group out of step with the views of a majority of American Jews. While many Jewish organizations have endorsed a two-state solution and come out strongly against calls from the far right for the mass expulsion of Arabs, the ZOA has consistently opposed efforts to create a Palestinian state and failed to take a stand against transfer.

The fact that three past chairmen of the Presidents Conference are headlining an event for the group underscores just how much the political landscape has shifted since 2004, when Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza sharply divided the Jewish community. As Gaza has plunged into chaos in the year since the pullout was completed and become a launch pad for terrorists firing Qassam rockets into the Jewish state, tensions between those on both sides of the issue have eased, some Jewish organizational leaders said.

Klein told the Forward that ZOA’s objections to the pullout had been vindicated by the fallout from disengagement, and that prominent Jewish supporters of the withdrawal, whom he declined to name, had called him to say that they had been wrong on the issue.

Many of the major Jewish organizations that backed the pullout continue to support a two-state solution, a plan opposed by ZOA. But Klein said that his organization and others are on the same page more than ever before, with most groups opposing talks with or funding for the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Asked why his group would give its top prize to a Jewish leader who vociferously advocated for Gaza disengagement, Klein said that while the ZOA “strongly differed with Mort Zuckerman’s position on Gaza, on 95% of the issues ZOA supports his positions.”

“If we agreed with every honoree on every issue,” Klein added, “we would have none.”

Klein praised Zuckerman’s financial support for the educational center at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, named for Zuckerman’s daughter. He also lauded the mogul’s columns in U.S. News & World Report for “exposing the truth of the Arab war against Israel,” and his behind-the-scenes involvement in promoting Israel’s relationship with the United States.

Zuckerman said only that he was “honored” to receive the Brandeis award, but declined to answer any follow-up questions.

Tisch echoed Klein’s view that being on opposite sides of the fence on Gaza disengagement was a moot issue.

“Just because you don’t agree with someone on every point, doesn’t mean they’re your enemies,” he said.

Tisch, who backed the Gaza pullout and continues to believe it was “important to do in the context of the time,” described his relationship with Klein as “very close.” Referring to Klein, Tisch said: “Not that I always agree with him, but I think he’s serious and honest.”

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