Right wing upstaging peace-process backers in U.S.

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In September of 1994 — a year after the anniversary of The Handshake and more than a year before the assassination of Israel's prime minister — 50 American Jewish leaders joined President Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin in a satellite conference.

Following media criticism that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization was not outspoken enough in favor of the peace process, the umbrella group organized the session.

The Conference of Presidents also prepared the apologetically titled report, "A Year of Hope: Highlights of the American Jewish Community's Activities in Support of Israel's Search for Peace,"presented on-air to Rabin.

"Mr. Prime Minister," said conference chairman Lester Pollack, "the American Jewish community, as demonstrated by broad participation today and in [its] activities over the past 12 months, is committed to Israel's security, to strengthening the United States-Israel relationship and to Israel's decades-long search for a true lasting peace with her neighbors."

The satellite conference, however, was a smokescreen, an attempt to show the late Israeli prime minister that American Jewry was still deeply committed to Israel and to the peace process.

Surveys of American Jews reveal they overwhelmingly support the peace process. In September 1995, 68 percent of American Jews supported the Israeli government's peace initiative while only 15 percent opposed it, according to polling by the American Jewish Committee.

What the surveys do not convey, however, is the superficiality of that commitment or Israel's falling status as a priority for American Jews.

Long before the assassination, the Israeli government was sensing a change in American support.

In September, it dispatched to the United States a dozen retired generals to drum up peace-process support amid the Jewish community and the general public. And on the first anniversary of the handshake, Rabin wrote a letter to 4,500 American rabbis imploring them to speak favorably about the peace process in their High Holy Day sermons.

"The American Jewish community is wringing its hands…and crying `gevalt' because of the prospect of peace," said Mark Talisman, founder of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Indeed, Pollack's assertion of "broad participation" was a sham. While Jewish leaders turned out by the dozens in the New York and Washington, D.C., studios and read canned statements of support, most communities saw poor turnouts for what had been billed as a historic event.

Only three people turned out in Boston to watch the telecast, for example, and other federations reported lackluster attendance.

The 77-page report of activities supporting the peace process was mostly a catalog of Israel-related activities that happen in some form or another every year. Included were press releases, newsletter articles about Israel, United Jewish Appeal missions, interethnic dialogues and Capitol Hill briefings.

"They really stretched the criteria for activities to include in the report," said one Jewish professional whose organization was included in it but who felt the document was misleading.

The Conference of Presidents' failure to attract large numbers of viewers to its telecast indicates what is happening at the grassroots level.

"If you go to NJCRAC [National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council] or the Conference of Presidents…if you go to any old Jewish meeting, the AIPAC person in the room will sooner or later bring up foreign aid," said Steve Rosen of American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a June speech to the American Jewish Press Association.

"Everybody in the room will be respectful but they won't be interested, they won't follow it up with questions, they won't act on the information when they leave the room, they won't go back home and urge their members or their chapter heads to write letters to members of Congress about foreign aid.

"People's instinct to get out of bed in the morning and go fight for foreign aid is not what it was when Scuds were landing in 1991 or in the aftermath of the '73 war. So when we go into the interagency arena and we talk about foreign aid, foreign aid, foreign aid, we sound to some people like Johnny One Note, hooked on the past. It's not that people are coming out against foreign aid but it's just ho-hum."

And while $3 billion in aid to Israel was approved again this year, Rosen and others doubt that next year Israel will be spared from the budget-cutting atmosphere predominant in Washington.

While the great center of American Jewry has withdrawn from Israel, those who oppose the Labor government's policies have intensified their activities and often drown out moderate voices.

"Where is American Jewry on the peace process?" lamented a Labor Party leader who often travels to the United States. "Why haven't they come forward to defend the Israeli government? The polls show that they support the policies so why have they let the right-wing crazies define the debate?"

Talisman has similar concerns. "Why at a historic moment like this do we seem to have gone brain-dead?" he said before the assassination. "This dynamic has left a small, rabid minority…To lose the opportunity to hammer out a peace together here is tragic for the children of Israel. Tragic. And I don't hear any alternatives."

A central source of anti-Rabin and anti-Labor government criticism has been Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. Klein makes no secret of his distaste for Yasser Arafat but says he tries to walk a fine line not to openly oppose the peace process.

A regular feature of any American Jewish conference is Klein standing at the audience microphone grilling a speaker and reading the most recent quotation from Arafat that casts into doubt the PLO leader's dedication to peace. Klein claims that Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovitz called him at home, frustrated over the ZOA leader's constant needling.

There have always been right-of-center voices in the American Jewish community but what distinguishes Klein is that he has made his presence felt on Capitol Hill. Klein pushed for and achieved legislation — over the hesitations of the Israeli government — mandating that the State Department monitor PLO compliance with the peace process. The legislation includes provisions to deny the Palestinian Authority aid should they fail to meet their commitments.

"The majority of American Jews want the peace process to keep on moving," said a political consultant with close ties to Capitol Hill. "Yet we have an Israeli government that is barely lifting a pinkie to give its side of the story to American Jewry.

"The other side, the right wing, is pummeling the Israeli government and the peace process. The silence of most Jews and of mainstream Jewish organizations allows this process to continue."