News Analysis: Mixed signals sent by Jews to Clinton

WASHINGTON — An aggressive lobbying campaign to warn against American pressure on Israel has led to a split among U.S. Jews.

The effort, resulting in a flurry of congressional letters, has also sent competing signals to the Clinton administration as it debates how to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Following a lobbying blitz by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, 81 senators last week sent a letter to President Clinton, siding with Israel's effort to prevent an American peace plan. More than 150 members of the House signed a similar letter.

The letters came after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged American Jews to stop "portraying us as if we are shoving something down Israel's throat."

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations did not endorse the Senate letter, which sprang from an initiative by the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition and was sponsored by Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Without endorsing it, the Conference of Presidents thanked the senators for standing up for Israel and sent a letter to Clinton supporting his continued role in the peace process and accepting the administration's assurances that there will be no ultimatum, formal plan or effort to "second-guess Israel's security," according to a Jewish official involved in the process.

The push for the Senate letter marked the first time that AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, has launched a major effort on the peace process since the Clinton administration came up with a plan to ask Israel to withdraw from a further 13.1 percent of the West Bank.

The proposal, though never formally announced, makes the phased withdrawals contingent on concurrent Palestinian steps to fight terrorism.

AIPAC's effort followed intense lobbying on the part of the Israeli government to enlist U.S. Jewish support to thwart any U.S. pressure.

At least six senior Capitol Hill staffers lamented what several termed the "disgusting" lobbying display over the U.S. role in the peace process.

"It's OK to have a difference of opinion in the Jewish community," said one Jewish staffer.

"But the competing letters have taken our internal politics and made them public," said the aide.

AIPAC sent out action alerts including one on March 26 urging Jewish activists to line up congressional support for the Mack-Lieberman letter.

"The problem now may not be so much the details of the `American plan.' The real problem…is the idea that the Government of the United States rather than the Government of Israel would decide Israel's destiny," the alert said.

It quoted Martin Indyk, a former AIPAC official who now serves as U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. In June 1988, Indyk said he opposed U.S. pressure on Israel because "it provides an incentive for Israel's adversaries to wait for the United States to deliver Israel."

The Mack-Lieberman letter said, "It would be a serious mistake for the United States to change from its traditional role as facilitator of the peace process to using public pressure against Israel" particularly because "Israel has kept the promises it made at Oslo" and because Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat "repeatedly threatens renewal of widespread violence and continues to withhold full security cooperation with Israel."

The Israel Policy Forum, founded to support the peace policies begun by Israel's former Labor government, challenged AIPAC by lobbying members to sign a letter more supportive of Clinton.

Sponsored by Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) and signed by 33 members of the House, including 15 Jews, the letter says, "American leadership in the peace process could once again prove decisive."

"It would be one of the great failures of American Jewry in our time" if the peace process collapsed "in part due to the administration backing away out of fear of political retribution from our community," said Tom Smerling, IPF's Washington representative.

AIPAC says its efforts represented a consensus position among Jews.

"You do not get 81 senators in three days when there's a disagreement in the community," said a senior AIPAC official.