Gaza non-debate leaves U.S. Jews in a muddle

washington | In Israel, the political battle over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan is raging with renewed fury.

But in the U.S., opponents of the Gaza plan have failed to gain any traction — even among their conservative Christians friends who abhor the idea of giving up land to the Palestinians.

Doves are caught in a different kind of bind. Many remain deeply suspicious of Sharon, but they are loath to speak out against the large-scale abandonment of settlements that the Gaza plan represents.

American Jewish right-wingers don’t have a problem deciding what they think about the Gaza disengagement plan — they regard it as the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from a critical part of the Jewish homeland — but they have a big problem convincing their usual allies.

The most aggressive group has been the Zionist Organization of America, which this spring launched an advertising campaign in Israel to bolster political opposition to what its leaders call Sharon’s “retreat” plan.

Americans for a Safe Israel has worked with some Christian groups here to “save the Gaza/Gush Katif Jews from expulsion,” and is supporting a petition drive calling on the Sharon government to “completely abandon” the plan.

But their efforts, while energizing their core supporters, have had almost no impact on the pro-Israel mainstream, Congress or the broader public.

Among rank-and-file Jews, there has never been much support for the settlers’ movement — especially the Gaza settlers, seen as the most politically extreme. Recent hints of violence by opponents of the Gaza plan have done nothing to change that impression. Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs

Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, have signaled strong support for whatever the Sharon government decides to do, while avoiding micro-analysis of the Gaza plan.

More troubling to the Gaza opponents is the unwillingness of many top Christian conservatives to wade into the fray and use their considerable political muscle to lobby against administration support for the plan.

Pro-Israel evangelists and their many friends in Congress may dislike the idea of Israel giving up more territory, but they are unwilling to oppose a Republican president who hopes the plan will jump-start his stalled Mideast road map.

ZOA president Morton Klein admits he is frustrated.

“A number of religious Christians in Congress have said this (plan) doesn’t make sense — but they don’t want to appear to be to the right of Sharon,” he said. “I am disappointed at how few have spoken out.”

On the other side of the spectrum, groups on the Jewish left are in even more of a quandary.

For most, any withdrawal of a significant number of settlements fulfills a longtime goal. Many also believe it will establish a precedent that makes it inevitable the West Bank settlements will be the next to go. The left hopes for what the right fears.

But the question of Sharon’s motives is important to the doves.

Recently, Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a Sharon confidante, said that “the whole idea of this, the justification, the raison de etre, is to cement Israel’s positions in those areas of the West Bank which obviously Israel is not going to relinquish for vital strategic reasons.”

The big question for the left: exactly how much land is Sharon talking about? Is it just the major settlement blocs contiguous to Jerusalem, or is the Gaza plan intended to help Israel hold on to a broader swath of West Bank land?

The Bush administration, as one condition for its support, pressed Sharon to agree that the unilateral Gaza withdrawal would not preclude efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, but many on the left believe that’s exactly what the Israeli premier has in mind.

“Given his entire history, there is ample reason to believe he sees this as the end of a process, not the beginning,” said an official with a Jewish peace group.

Last week’s report by Peace Now indicating that settlement activity has intensified in recent months, especially in Gaza, just reinforced those doubts.

The result: a muddled, uncertain approach to the Gaza plan by groups that welcome the idea of abandoning Gaza but worry that the cagey old Sharon is using it as part of a master plan to keep big chunks of the West Bank.

So the political battle may rage in Israel, but in this country the non-debate is defined by an angry right, an uncertain left and an acquiescent, hopeful middle.