Last week’s move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to expand the municipal jurisdiction of Jerusalem baffled and angered officials in Washington. According to critics, the plan to create an “umbrella municipality” is a thinly disguised attempt to change the city’s demographics in advance of “final-status” negotiations. Initially, Netanyahu agreed that the plan represented a “basic change in Jerusalem’s status,” as he told reporters after last Thursday’s announcement. But this week, after calling American objections to the scheme “absurd,” he said the plan will not change the status of Jewish settlements in the Jerusalem area.
That mixed message seemed to add to the administration’s ire.
Last Friday, State Department spokesman James Rubin blasted the plan, calling it “extremely provocative” and “unfathomable.”
By Monday — a day after the Netanyahu cabinet approved the preliminary plan — Rubin had tempered his response, saying that the prime minister’s “clarifications” had alleviated some of the administration’s concerns.
“The prime minister told us that this decision is not an effort to expand the municipal authority of the city into areas that extend beyond the green line,” he said, although many Israeli opposition leaders and newspapers challenged that claim.
The newest Jerusalem brouhaha was the subject of a hastily organized conference call on Friday between selected Jewish leaders and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who expressed what one participant called “very strong” concern about the Jerusalem decision.
The conference call came after Americans for Peace Now provided State Department officials with a detailed analysis of the plan.
“We provided ‘smoking gun’ documents that clearly called for expansion of Jerusalem to the north, south, east and west,” said APN’s political director, Mark Rosenblum. “It’s a blatant attempt to change the facts on the ground, and that seemed to be the reason she asked for the call.”
Several leaders of mainstream groups tried to refocus the call on issues such as Iran, but Albright did not let the conversation veer very far from the Jerusalem controversy.
Some administration officials believe the announcement of the Jerusalem plan could be a prelude to a decision by the Israeli leader to carry out the long-delayed second West Bank redeployment.
Netanyahu, they believe, may be preparing his right-wing coalition partners for a decision to accept the American redeployment plan — a step that could bring down his government.
But others worry that it’s just one more example of a government in Jerusalem that lurches from crisis to crisis, driven more by day-to-day political expedience than an overall vision for advancing the moribund peace process.
Administration officials were particularly irked that Netanyahu took the controversial action just as he was asking U.S. officials to fight Palestinian attempts to upgrade their status at the United Nations.
“What we’re hearing from the administration is great uncertainty as well as anger,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “Once again, the prime minister’s motives and strategies are extraordinarily difficult to read.”
Allegations In ’96 Brownback Campaign
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has established himself as a favorite of pro-Israel hardliners, but this week he found himself under attack for campaign tactics by some supporters that critics called anti-Semitic.
The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), charged that Brownback forces used “push polling” during his 1996 race against Jill Docking.
Push polling involves bogus surveys intended primarily to highlight to voters certain attributes of an opponent — such as race, religion or ethnicity. In the Brownback race, NJDC officials say, some Kansans were asked if the fact that Docking was Jewish would change their votes.
NJDC officials did not charge Brownback with ordering the controversial tactics, but said that the legislator failed to strongly condemn the activities of some of his campaign workers.
This week, Brownback vehemently denied the charges. “These claims … are a complete lie,” he said in a statement. “It is shameful for my political opponents, with no substantiation whatsoever, to link me or my campaign to these awful practices.”
He added that “if calls of this nature were made, whoever made them should be ashamed of themselves.”
But Docking, who lost her bid for the Senate seat vacated by former Sen. Bob Dole by a narrow margin, said that her campaign heard numerous reports of such calls, especially in the weeks just before the election.
She declined to speculate on the impact of the alleged calls on the final vote tally. “Some of the people who called in were horrified,” she said. “They were people who would never change their vote. But perhaps it did affect the votes of people we didn’t hear from.”
Most of the recipients of the alleged calls, she said, were moderate Republican “swing voters.” That includes Steve Baru, an Overland Park, Kansas stockbroker, who received a call on the day of the election. But it was much cruder than push polling, he said in an interview.
“The call was only two sentences,” he said. “They said they were calling to remind me to come out to vote and to vote for Sam Brownback. And then they said they wanted to remind me Jill Docking is Jewish. My reply was ‘so am I,’ and they hung up.”
Baru reported the incident to local Jewish officials; a week later, he received a call from Brownback’s local office.
“They said they were investigating it, and they apologized,” he said. “They sounded very sincere.”
He emphasized that he doesn’t blame Brownback personally.
“There isn’t a shred of evidence that Sam Brownback’s campaign itself had anything to do with it. But it’s very sad that it happened and very disturbing.”
And he said that since the election, he has given up his Republican registration.
Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League, said that Brownback’s statement is “important in allying concerns that were aroused by these allegations.”
But NJDC director Ira Forman said the issue goes beyond Brownback and his 1996 campaign.
“The issue is whether political anti-Semitism can survive in 21st century America,” he said. “The one way to stop this is to seriously investigate who is behind instances of anti-Semitism like this and to make them pay a political cost.”
Auschwitz Negotiators Reject Criticism
Negotiations about the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site in Poland are becoming increasingly entangled in the messy battle over the leadership of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This week, critics of Miles Lerman, chair of the board overseeing the Washington museum, intensified their criticism of an expected agreement with Poland over the future of the site.
Critics such Rabbi Avi Weiss of AMCHA: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, say that Lerman, a lead negotiator in the discussions with Polish authorities, is prepared to allow a disruptive visitors center and parking lot at the site, and to allow a large cross to remain.
But negotiators say those charges are gross exaggerations. Instead, the agreement, which may be signed next month, merely lays out broad principals for a master plan that they say will guarantee the sanctity of the site.
The impending agreement, they say, will require that the Auschwitz and Birkenau sites be physically linked, and for Birkenau — generally ignored by visitors — to become a central focus for visitors, a change that will reinforce the Jewish character of the historic site.
The agreement will also encourage economic development of the surrounding town, but prevent encroachment by commercial ventures.
And it will demand that tour guides “tell the story accurately and that all publications of the State Museum be accurate,” said Ralph Grunwald, director of external affairs for the Museum. “That will be done using a vetting process involving Yad Vashem.”
This week, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-Queens, Brooklyn), both New York Democrats, wrote to Lerman asking about the controversial visitors’ center.
But Grunwald rejected charges that the upcoming agreement would allow a disruptive visitors center.
“There’s nothing even remotely addressing this matter,” he said. “And all discussions so far have indicated that any future visitors center should be located in a site equidistant between Auschwitz and Birkenau.”
What about the remaining cross, which marks a place where Catholics were killed?
Grunwald pointed to the 11 religious symbols, including crosses and Stars of David, which were removed from the Field of Ashes after quiet negotiations between Jewish leaders and Polish authorities. “One would hope that any other religious symbols that are seen as offensive on the site will be addressed,” he said. “No guarantees, but that’s the hope.”
Lerman has been under attack in recent months for the choice of Claremont McKenna professor John Roth to head the Museum’s new Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, and for firing Museum director Walter Reich earlier in the year.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said he worries that an important agreement might be derailed by internal Jewish politics.
“This is an agreement that clearly serves Jewish interests,” he said. “But you have the carpers and the kvetchers who want to bring it down. If we fail to take advantage of this historic opportunity, we will be cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
Clinton In China
The White House was swarming with religious leaders last week as the administration moved to head off charges that President Bill Clinton was turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in China — including the persecution of religious minorities.
Clinton was due in China late this week in a trip tinged with controversy. Conservatives have blasted the president for agreeing to a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square, and claim that he is putting trade ahead of human rights. Other critics complain that the administration is ignoring China’s role in weapons proliferation, and the fact that its missiles currently target American cities.
But human and religious rights, Clinton promised the religious leaders, will be high on his agenda as he meets with Chinese leaders.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York and one of three religious leaders who traveled to China at Clinton’s request, said Clinton is listening to the religious community.
“We reviewed with the president our findings and made suggestions for his visit on the issue of religious freedom and human rights,” Rabbi Schneier said in an interview. “The core message is that religion should be on the agenda of the Sino-American relationship. The president has a great opportunity during his state visit to reinforce some of the recommendations we have made, and there’s no question in my mind that he and the secretary of state will do so.”
China is making progress on the religious freedom front, he said. “Will it be as rapid as we want it to be? No, things don’t happen that fast in China. But it’s on track.”
Rabbi Schneier said he is traveling to China next week to bring a Torah — a gift from New York’s Park East synagogue — to a historic synagogue in Shanghai.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, seemed more dubious about improvements in China’s religious freedom record.
“I have been one who has spoken out in favor of seeking incremental steps by China, not sweeping change,” said Rabbi Eckstein, who was also at the White House event. “But the problem is, so far we’re not even seeing incremental improvement.”