Presidents Conference battling over monitoring Arafat

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON — The chairman and top-paid professional of the Jewish community's primary umbrella group are at odds over a proposal to monitor anti-Israel speeches by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian officials.

With a videotape of Arafat calling for a "jihad [holy war] via deaths, via battles" circulating among Jewish groups, Leon Levy — chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — has proposed forming a new committee to "report and monitor" such speeches.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference's executive vice chairman, said, "There is no need for a committee." Hoenlein prefers that the entire conference take up the matter.

The latest question of PLO compliance with the peace accords it signed with Israel comes as Jewish groups opposing American aid to the Palestinian Authority are disseminating excerpts of a June 19 speech Arafat gave at Gaza's Al-Azar University.

"The commitment still stands, and the oath is still valid: that we will continue this long jihad, this difficult jihad, this blossoming jihad, via deaths, via battles; but this is the way of victory, the first way, not only for the Palestinian nation, but also for our Arab and Islamic nation," said Arafat, according to a videotape and transcript of the speech circulated by the Zionist Organization of America.

The question of whether to convene a special committee to monitor such speeches came during a telephone meeting of Conference of Presidents member agencies Monday of last week.

Levy said he mentioned the idea "off the cuff" at the beginning of a call that included a peace process briefing by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich. The conference asked Rabinovich for additional information on the Arafat speech. Another conference call was planned for later in the week to discuss the matter further.

"It disturbed me that information is coming to us now on a speech taped two months ago," Levy said in a telephone interview after the call. "Why should we be discussing this now and not two months ago?"

With this in mind, Levy suggested establishing the committee.

"When speeches are made by members of the Palestinian Authority contrary to the Oslo Accords and other agreements and it is not known by the conference, I think it is important to get it to them," Levy said.

He added that he planned to discuss the idea with past conference chairs.

"I'm sure they'll be all for it," he added.

Hoenlein said he did not discuss the idea with Levy after the conference call.

"It was dead as far as I was concerned," Hoenlein said.

"However, this is [Levy's] prerogative as chairman," he added.

As for conference members, at least one organization opposes the idea.

"If we want additional information, all we have to do is ask for it," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The conference is "not equipped for this and that's not what we're about," Foxman said. "Certainly, we can ask the Israeli government to provide us with any information we need."

Other conference members, however, backed the idea.

Both the pro-peace process group, Americans for Peace Now, and one of its loudest critics, the Zionist Organization of America, have embraced the idea — albeit for different reasons.

The proposed committee would "fill the need for analysis on this issue," said Gary Rubin, executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

"It makes a lot of sense for the presidents conference to enter a serious deliberative process. There is simply not enough information out there to make any conclusions," he said, referring to Arafat's recent speech.

ZOA President Morton Klein said he wants to use the committee as a platform to prove his charge that Arafat is not complying with the accords he signed with Israel.

"This committee will acknowledge the fact that Arafat makes these outrageous speeches and will expose past and any future speeches inciting terrorism," Klein said.