U.S. Jewish, Arab groups slow to cooperate on Wye

WASHINGTON — When Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the Wye agreement last month, many Jewish groups flooded fax machines with statements praising the breakthrough in the peace process.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs jumped the gun and sent congratulations before the land-for-security deal was struck.

Hoping to capitalize on the positive mood, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked many of those Jewish groups to work with Arab American organizations to "build a constituency for peace."

At a meeting with American Jews and Arabs last week, Albright appealed for joint Jewish-Arab action in lobbying Congress to support the hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that is part of the Wye accord.

But one week after the 90-minute meeting with Albright, the fax machines remain silent.

It is not the first time the two communities have failed to come together on the peace process. Builders for Peace, founded by Arab and Jewish business leaders in 1993 to help business development in the Palestinian self-rule areas, shut down operations last year.

State Department officials hoped that the Albright session would lead to regular meetings between Arab and Jewish groups. Dennis Ross, the U.S. Middle East peace envoy, tried to work some of his trademark negotiating magic as the session wound down by urging the sides not to leave the room until they set a date for another meeting.

But the gathering broke up — and, almost as quickly, prospects for a joint statement dimmed.

Most of the Jewish groups do not seem interested in the joint statement.

"At the present time, we're not doing anything with any other group," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"Arab American groups have not demonstrated any support– at the State Department or in statements — in support of the Wye agreement."

While Hoenlein stopped short of saying that it is up to the Arab American groups to make the first move, he did say, "They have not found the need to come forward and support the Wye agreement."

But that's simply not true, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

"We are supportive of it," said Zogby, who stressed that he attended the Oct. 23 White House signing ceremony.

"It's not the end of the road by any stretch, but it's a step," said Zogby, who wrote a newspaper column praising President Clinton's role at Wye and was set to release a statement for his organization this week.

According to participants in the Albright meeting, Zogby was to work with the Conference of Presidents on a statement — but so far the two sides have yet to speak.

In the Jewish community, the JCPA, an umbrella group of local and national organizations, is engaged in preliminary discussions with its members on the possibility of a joint statement. Three years ago the group teamed with the National Association of Arab Americans to condemn terrorism.

The response so far on a joint statement does not bode well for Albright's other request of the group.

"It would be quite stunning" if representatives of the Arab and Jewish communities go to Capitol Hill to ask members of Congress to support a U.S. foreign aid package linked to the Wye accord, Albright said.

It would be stunning, indeed, activists on both sides agree, if Arab Americans would support sending U.S. taxpayers' money into the West Bank as part of the package.

Israel wants money to pay for the redeployment of its troops and to build some 20 bypass roads so settlers in the West Bank can avoid Palestinian-ruled areas. U.S. aid would also pay for safe-passage routes to enable Palestinians to travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"What is going to count is not whether we sign a joint statement but whether we testify side by side in Congress," said Jason Isaacson, who attended the Albright meeting as the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee.

Congress would never have supported previous aid packages to the Palestinians without active support from pro-Israel activists. But the prospect of Arab Americans lobbying for millions in aid to Israel is almost unthinkable.

For years, Arab American organizations have decried as disproportionate the $3 billion in economic and military aid that Israel has received annually from the United States. Now, Israel is asking for hundreds of millions of dollars more.

The Clinton administration's aid proposal could have some significant sweeteners long sought by the Arab American community and the Palestinians.

According to State Department sources, the aid package could also include changes in decades-old U.S. law which considers the Palestine Liberation Organization a terrorist organization and requires waivers for its leaders to visit the United States and for its representatives to maintain an office.

Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon is scheduled to arrive in Washington later this month to present Albright with an Israeli request for additional aid.

As part of the Wye agreement, Clinton promised to ask Congress for additional funds for Israeli redeployment costs and for Palestinian economic development. A five-year, $500 million U.S. aid package for the Palestinians ended this year.

If approved by Congress and signed into law by Clinton, the additional aid would mark the first time that U.S. money would go directly to fund projects in the West Bank.

Members of Congress have said that they will likely support a one-time infusion of money to Israel for redeployment. For the Palestinians, aid is likely to hinge on the implementation of the Wye agreement.

"The bottom line in the minds of the vast majority of the members of the United States Congress is: Is there a firm commitment on the part of the Palestinian Authority to put down the tools of war and to provide, in a serious way, the security requirements related to Israel's legitimate needs?" Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said after the White House signing ceremony.

"I am absolutely confident, if Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority keep both the spirit and the letter of the agreement they signed, that there will be no difficulty in seeing to it that economic assistance is provided to the Palestinians and to the Palestinian Authority. It all relates to security," he said.