Jewish leaders laud Abbas as a breath of fresh air

NEW YORK — Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is trying to convince American Jewish leaders and Bush administration officials that he's no Yasser Arafat.

In a White House meeting July 25 and in a meeting with Jewish leaders the day before, Abbas presented himself as a moderate and a supporter of a peaceful, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I'm gaining confidence in the Palestinian prime minister and the great Cabinet," Bush said, describing them as "people who do what they say."

Many of the 50 or so Jewish leaders who attended a July 24 meeting in Washington came away similarly impressed.

Abbas "is a breath of fresh air," said Michael Bohnen, chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for Jewish community relations councils and national organizations.

"There's a certain amount of trust now" in Abbas, added Marvin Lender, chairman of the executive committee of the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington group that supports Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives.

The JCPA and IPF organized the meeting at Abbas' request.

At the White House, Abbas told Bush that violence would continue "if Israel continues to grab Palestinian land," citing especially Israel's construction of a fence to keep terrorists from infiltrating from the West Bank.

Bush told Abbas that Palestinian terrorism must stop and that the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel should be examined "on a case-by-case basis" — the Palestinians are demanding a mass release of thousands of prisoners — but he too criticized the security fence, which he called a "wall."

"I think the wall is a problem, and I've discussed that with" Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush said.

Sharon paid a visit to the White House on Tuesday.

Bush also pledged to send two Cabinet members to Israel this fall to begin work on bringing jobs and economic development to Palestinians.

For many of the Jewish officials, the July 24 meeting was their first with Abbas, who was appointed after the United States and Israel said any progress in negotiations required a change in Palestinian leadership. Israel and the United States believe Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, is irredeemably tied to terrorism.

One Jewish leader who did not attend remained doubtful that Abbas represents real change.

"The only difference between Abbas and Arafat is that Abbas shaves and wears a suit," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Arafat has continued to thwart Abbas at times, but the two recently worked out a power-sharing arrangement.

The 90-minute session at the St. Regis Hotel gathered members of a range of Jewish organizations, ranging from left-of-center groups such as the IPF and Americans for Peace Now to more-centrist groups such as the JCPA, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and Hadassah, as well as several major federation leaders.

Many who participated said they came away convinced Abbas is a moderate alternative to Arafat who wholeheartedly supports Bush's "road map" to peace, even if he lacks Arafat's popular support.

"He expressed a strong desire for peace" in "an exceedingly moderate tone," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's synagogue arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

"He wasn't patronizing, and he didn't gloss over the differences."

According to many at the meeting, Abbas described Israeli actions as "weapons" that Palestinian extremists could cite to scuttle the first signs of hope in the peace process in three years.

Those weapons, Abbas said, included Israel's continued building of settlements, its refusal to release all Palestinian prisoners, its construction of the security fence along the border with the West Bank and its maintenance of security checkpoints in and near Palestinian areas.

Alan Solomont, chairman of the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said Abbas told the Jewish leaders that he hopes to get U.S. government and American Jewish backing to convince Israel to act on these issues.

Israel last week announced several gestures designed to strengthen Abbas, such as the removal of key roadblocks in the West Bank, issuance of additional Palestinian work permits and a willingness to withdraw Israeli troops from two more West Bank cities.