400 rally in D.C. to support sputtering peace process

Jews came with the hope "that somehow, the new spirit all of us felt five years ago this day can be regenerated and dispel the current gloom," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, which was part of a loose coalition of more than 25 organizations convening the event.

The groups, including the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, as well as Americans for Peace Now, the National Council of Jewish Women and the New Israel Fund, said they represent the vast majority of the organized American Jewish community.

Prior to the rally, President Clinton met with leaders of the various organizations to express his steadfast commitment to moving the peace process forward. His appearance at the White House meeting, which was originally billed as a briefing with senior administration officials, caught everyone by surprise.

Clinton spoke at length about the peace process, noting that some progress had been made in the past week during U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross' visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Clinton added that obstacles still remained.

The Jewish leaders, in turn, urged Clinton to intensify peacemaking efforts, asserting that the overwhelming majority of American Jews support the Oslo accords.

That message came out at the rally as well.

"For the United States to withdraw from the peace process is unthinkable and would lead to chaos," said Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Indyk, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, suggested that U.S. efforts to break the deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians were close to bearing fruit.

He emphasized that the "clock is ticking" as May of next year approaches, when the interim agreement expires.

Despite speeches that stressed the need for staying the course of the Oslo process, criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's peace policies was implied but not overt.

Israel's ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, did not attend the rally, citing scheduling conflicts. The embassy did send a representative.

After hearing excerpts of Yitzhak Rabin's address at the White House signing ceremony in 1993, Leah Rabin took the podium and with glistening eyes, looked over the crowd in what were familiar surroundings.

She and her late husband had frequently attended the synagogue when Rabin served as ambassador to Washington. Their son became a bar mitzvah there.

"There is a price to pay for peace and [Yitzhak] became the price we all had to pay," she said, adding that "when we buried Yitzhak we did not bury the hope."

Steve Spector of Falls Church, Va., left the rally reflecting on how the "hope and euphoria" of five years ago had given way to frustration and the realization that Oslo supporters need to think in more practical terms.

"We need to make things happen. We can't just hope and wait for it to happen."