U.S. leaders contemplate push for Israeli national unity

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JERUSALEM — American Jewish leaders are considering issuing an appeal to all Israeli political parties to come together in a national unity government.

The idea, floated quietly behind the scenes as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations began its annual mission to Israel this week, reflects a growing perception among American Jews that Israel sorely needs a unity government as the violent crisis with the Palestinians rages on.

Such an appeal could mark a significant shift from the umbrella organization's traditional policy of avoiding involvement in internal Israeli politics, and some delegates already are opposing the idea.

The suggestion comes just a month after the group's chairman, Ronald Lauder, spoke at a Jerusalem rally opposed to the division of the city, as contemplated by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak in peace talks with the Palestinians.

Although he claimed to be speaking as an individual, Lauder was criticized for allegedly injecting the Conference of Presidents into Israeli political debate — especially on an issue on which the group lacks consensus.

This week's mission began as Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon's Likud Party held talks aimed at bringing the Labor Party into a national unity government.

Some Labor leaders are rejecting the idea of joining a government headed by Sharon.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, confirmed that the idea to issue an appeal for Israeli unity had been floated.

"There are people who have raised the idea for an open declaration in support of a national unity government," Hoenlein said in an interview.

But there are concerns, he added, that even if a broad consensus on the issue emerges among the Conference of Presidents' member organizations, it might create a precedent for more overt political involvement in the future on more controversial issues.

Lauder, for his part, would not comment on the possibility that the Conference of Presidents might openly support a unity government.

At a media briefing launching this year's mission, Lauder said he was "encouraged" that Sharon was determined to keep Jerusalem united. He also said he would continue to speak out on Jerusalem, even if it meant resigning as chairman of the Conference of Presidents, which is made up of 54 groups from across the political spectrum.

Hoenlein said that diaspora Jews have a right to take a stand on the future of Jerusalem — unlike other, internal Israeli political issues — because "this is our common inheritance."

Conference members who support the call for a national unity government say the organization can afford to take a stand because the issue is no longer politically divisive.

"This is a critical time and this is not a partisan effort," said Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the American-Israel Friendship League and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

"Given the critical nature and the uncertainty of the future direction of relations with the Palestinian Authority, the Jewish people should put aside their immediate political differences and recognize that everybody's interests are best served by coming together," he added.

Other members who have pushed for a declaration say such an appeal could be a unifying force both in Israel and among diaspora communities, whose fracture lines parallel the partisan debate in Israeli politics.

"There is a broad consensus in American Jewry to come out for a national unity government," said David Clayman, director of the Israel office for the American Jewish Congress. "This can unite the American Jewish community."

Clayman also said the formation of a national unity government would help the American Jewish community push Israel's case in the United States.

"If you have a very narrow extremist-oriented government, that becomes a very difficult task," he said.

But some delegates — from both right and left — objected to the idea.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said bringing Labor into a national unity government would amount to rejecting the will of the voters, after Barak and his policies received a "clear trouncing" in Israel's Feb. 6 election for prime minister.

"I don't think the Conference should be involved in a political issue like this," Klein said. "We should stay out of politics."

On the left, Mark Rosenblum, founder of Americans for Peace Now, said he did not object in principle to a call for a unity government, but said it was still unclear what such a government would stand for.

"Some of us would first like to see what the national unity government is and what its guidelines are," Rosenblum said.

"A unity government must be united around something," he added. "My instinct would be that unity without content sets the stage for a divorce that could be even more divisive for the American Jewish community."

The alternative to a unity government — a narrow government contingent on the support of far-right and Orthodox parties — also presents potential drawbacks for American Jewry.

The fervently religious parties in such a coalition might try to push through a variety of religious legislation, driving a wedge between Israel and diaspora Jewry at a particularly sensitive time.

"The last thing Israel needs now is to get embroiled in these religious issues," said one delegate to the Conference, speaking on condition of anonymity.