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Groups Split Over Jerusalem’s Tough Talk

WASHINGTON — The mounting crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations and Jerusalem’s hardening stance have opened up gaps in the American Jewish communal leadership for the first time in many months, raising questions about the reliability of Israel’s support among its main allies here should it decide to escalate its responses.

Threatening Israeli statements about Yasser Arafat — including a Cabinet threat to expel him and calls by two top ministers to assassinate him — drew open criticism from several top Jewish organizational leaders this week. Sources close to the leading pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said the organization was not working to garner support for the controversial Cabinet decision, despite intense criticism from the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee, a leading centrist group, reaffirmed its commitment to the peace process leading to a two-state solution, putting it at odds with the growing mood in Israel’s ruling coalition.

Among those criticizing the talk of assassinating Arafat were Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform synagogue arm, and Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, arguably the most influential secular Jewish group in the country. Both leaders argued that even the mere threat of such a step could damage Israel’s relationship with the United States at a time when White House support is seen as vital. Foxman panned the assassination threats as “silly and counterproductive.”

Two ranking Israeli leaders, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert, have publicly advocated killing Arafat in the past week. An editorial last week in The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s oldest English-language daily, called for his execution.

Under a wave of international and American criticism, however, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom announced that killing Arafat was not and had not been on the table. He told diplomats at the U.N. Security Council Tuesday that no immediate plans existed to expel Arafat. The Israeli Cabinet, however, is standing by its September 11 vote to “work to remove” the Palestinian leader “in a manner and a time of its choosing” — a step opposed by Bush administration officials and questioned by several Jewish leaders.

With the likelihood of an immediate Arafat deportation fading, the Zionist Organization of America appears to be the only Jewish group actively lobbying for such a step. Aipac has not taken a position on the issue and does not appear to be urging congressmen to support it. “It’s hard to do anything on it when you don’t know what Israel really wants to do,” an Aipac staffer said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several Jewish community leaders expressed bewilderment at the Israeli statement regarding the “removal” of Arafat. One leader said: “If you’re going to do it, do it and cope with the consequences. But saying you are going to and then not doing anything does no good. You both breathe life into [Arafat] politically — he’s there and he’s stronger — and you invite world-wide condemnation.”

The American Jewish Congress was the only major centrist organization to issue a statement cautioning against any attempt to restrain Israel from removing Arafat. In the statement, released hours after the Cabinet’s position was published, AJCongress president Jack Rosen was quoted as saying that taking steps against Arafat would be “fully justified” and “those who over the years have propped up Arafat and continued to lend a veneer of legitimacy to this dedicated enemy of peace should have the decency not to interfere with whatever Israel decides to do with Arafat.”

Foxman argued that future diplomatic efforts should depend on Palestinian steps to combat terrorism and defended Israel’s right to expel Arafat. But the ADL director suggested that it would be wiser to cut the Palestinian leader off from the outside world by virtually imprisoning him in his Ramallah compound.

At its previously scheduled board of governors meeting over the weekend, the American Jewish Committee avoided taking a position on the Arafat question. But the organization adopted a moderate resolution that appeared to be at odds with those pushing for Arafat’s expulsion. The resolution reiterated the group’s support for a two-state solution and for the road map peace plan as a mechanism for achieving that goal. It also urged the administration to pressure the Palestinians to comply with the plan.

Faced with the choice of antagonizing the White House or appearing to object to the Israeli Cabinet’s decision to remove Arafat, many American Jewish organizations this week delicately sought a middle ground: They decided to hold a gathering in Washington to express solidarity with Israel and support for the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. The event, a public assembly of leaders of the nation’s Jewish organizations, will not endorse specific policies or practices of Israel’s war on Palestinian terrorism.

“People are not interested in debating policy, Israeli policies of any kind,” explained Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body representing 54 groups on issues relating to Israel. “People recognize that this is a sensitive moment and that what Israel faces is a transcendent danger, and they want to show that they are supporting Israel.”

Despite such politically neutral calls for supporting Israel, the conference’s daily e-mail alert, sent to thousands of recipients, was filled with articles justifying the Cabinet’s vote to remove Arafat. Conversations with leaders from several organizations revealed a range of opinions on how Israel and the United States should pursue relations with the Palestinians.

On the right, both in Israel and in American Jewish circles, activists were pushing for severe action against the Palestinian Authority and urging the Bush administration not to recognize Arafat’s pick to become the next Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, joined the calls for the White House to boycott Qurei, which would effectively leave Israel without a Palestinian negotiating partner.

The ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, argued for “an end to negotiations, a complete Israeli military victory and anything that needs to be done to eradicate terrorism.”

Other groups, however, are pushing for more American intervention to salvage what remains of the road map plan and the peace process. “The Jewish community should be encouraging American involvement,” Yoffie said. “This is a time of confusion and some despair. The emotions of the moment dominate, and I understand that. But having said that, I don’t believe that the fundamental dynamics of the situation have changed.”

If not out of some sense of idealism or optimism, some groups will stop short of writing off the peace process simply because the administration has not done so, said Marshall Breger, who served as White House liaison to the Jewish community under President Reagan.

“There is frustration, a feeling of loss of hope in the peace process and a strong desire to retaliate, to ‘get them,’” said Breger, now a professor at Catholic University of America. However, Breger added, most Jewish organizations avoid “saying Kaddish over the roadmap” because “the administration will try to keep some paper road map alive in some paper way.”

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