Rabin plays good cop/bad cop with American Jewry

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NEW YORK — Even as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is trying to convince American Jews that he is on the right path toward peace, he is also telling them to mind their own business.

In meetings with Jewish leaders and Jewish newspaper editors last week, Rabin focused his wrath over American Jewish involvement in the peace process on the increasingly vocal opponents of his policies.

But he also sent a message to American Jews in general that their role in the Israeli-diaspora partnership should center on philanthropy — and more of it.

"As far as the issues of war and peace, it is a matter to be decided by the Israelis alone in a free, democratic system," Rabin told a small group of Jewish editors here Saturday night.

Lashing out at those who have lobbied Congress on such issues as U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, Rabin said, "To try to undermine the policy of a democratically elected government, to pressure members of Congress, is unprecedented in the relationship between Israel and the great, generous, prosperous Jewish community in the United States."

Rabin did stop short of repeating a warning he issued to Jewish organizational leaders last week that further pressure could threaten the Israel-diaspora relationship.

However, he said the partnership between Israeli and American Jews should be limited to promoting aliyah (immigration to Israel) and absorption, and working for Jewish continuity.

The latest confrontations with American Jews came after last week's signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., of the interim agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The meetings, especially with the Jewish media, were sparked by Israeli diplomats in Washington and New York concerned that the Israeli government is out of touch with American Jewry.

Judging from some of the reaction to Rabin's remarks, these diplomats may be right.

His comments, which he repeated to Israeli journalists on his way home Saturday night, made front-page news in Israel. Yediot Achronot, the country's largest circulation newspaper, blared the headline "Rabin Against the Jews" in its Sunday edition.

Although many in the organized American Jewish community applauded Rabin's criticism of peace process opponents, many also took umbrage at his suggestion that American Jews should stick to philanthropy when it comes to Israel.

Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement, said he was troubled by what he termed Rabin's "disparaging remarks" about American Jews.

Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a peace process supporter, said Rabin "minimizes the advocacy role we have had over the years."

Echoing Jewish leaders at the meeting, Reich said Rabin is contradicting himself when he asks for American Jewish support for the peace process yet tells American Jews to stick to aliyah and absorption.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said Rabin was misunderstood.

"I'm sure he doesn't mean that it's not our business to fight international terrorism or to promote foreign aid to Israel," Hoenlein said, citing some issues on the umbrella group's agenda.

Rabin raised important questions about philanthropy and politics that "need to be wrestled with — and we're talking about them," Hoenlein said.

But the way Rabin raised the issues — when Jewish organization leaders expected instead to hear about the Israel-PLO agreement — "added to people's negative reactions."

Rabin went even further on fund raising, saying American Jewry should assist Israel only in absorbing new immigrants — and it should be giving more money too.

Funds for such projects as rural communities, which have traditionally received money raised in the United States and Jewish Agency-channeled monies, are "obsolete," Rabin said.

Israel does not expect American and other diaspora Jews to "do what the people of Israel have to do" financially to absorb new immigrants.

But, he said, he wants American Jews to "show your partnership not only by words."

Last year the United Jewish Appeal transferred $264 million to Israel, while Rabin said Israel spends $3.6 billion annually on costs related to immigration.

In Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency for Israel's chairman, Avraham Burg, called Rabin's attack on U.S. Jews "an historic error."

"The right-wing activists who have been lobbying in Congress and trying to undermine the peace process have to be dealt with in a political fashion, but it is wrong to attack American Jewry as a whole," Burg said.

Burg also said Israel-diaspora ties "should not be based solely on economic assistance."

Charles Goodman, chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, said Jewish fund-raisers in America share Rabin's concern that "fund-raising activities are not delivering as much to Israel as it should or as it has in the past."

As local needs grow and contributions shrink, many American Jewish communities have cut their overseas allocations. Overseas donations, including to Israel, have declined from 50 percent to 42 percent in recent years, according to the UJA.

While blasting those who oppose U.S. aid to the Palestinians, Rabin said there will not be peace unless "that peace will be translated to the man on the street" through economic improvement.

If the United States, which has pledged $500 million to the Palestinians, backs off, then other countries — whose pledges total $1.7 billion — might dry up, he said.

Rabin himself lobbied members of Congress on Palestinian aid during his visit.

Most American Jewish organizations support aid to the Palestinians, but a vocal minority has lobbied hard against it. Rabin was alluding to this debate when he blasted his American Jewish opponents.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, defended his right to lobby on this issue. "This is U.S. taxpayer dollars; it is absolutely my business," Klein said