As tension built between Washington and Jerusalem last week, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, a leader of the Orthodox movement, rose to urge American Jewry’s primary umbrella group to issue a clear statement strongly condemning U.S. pressure on Israel.
Instantly, a chorus of no’s echoed in the Manhattan meeting room of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. And conference chairman Melvin Salberg, ever sensitive to the consensus the group needed to act, told Ganchrow quickly, “I think you have your answer, Mendy.”
But that was last week. Before First Lady Hillary Clinton declared her support for a Palestinian state “on the same footing as other states.” Before The New York Times quoted an unidentified U.S. official saying that the administration had agreed to grant Israel a “reprieve,” a word Jewish leaders termed condescending, “to make it absolutely clear we’re doing everything we can.” And before The Washington Post portrayed the Presidents Conference itself as having turned back a “censure motion” proposed by Ganchrow after Israel’s UN ambassador, Dore Gold, had urged it to back one.
Just five days later these same Jewish leaders, meeting a second time, decided by 27 to 3 that changing conditions now required them to seek a meeting with Clinton himself; to also communicate their concerns in writing to the president; and to issue a public statement outlining those concerns.
There was no doubt that at the crux of the Jewish groups’ concern was the administration’s core proposal: that Israel cede 13.1 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control as a condition for opening talks with the Palestinians that Netanyahu himself had long sought on the final status of that territory.
Only a minority backed the Netanyahu government’s insistence that to yield more than 9 percent of the West Bank — its proposal for the second of three West Bank redeployments Israel is obligated to make under the Oslo Accords — would fatally damage the Jewish state’s security. The majority simply said that independent of their substance, U.S. proposals and ideas could not be posed as ultimatums.
In the end, said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, “This is all about how the United States will approach the final-status talks.” The “ultimatum” implicit in the condition the administration was now setting for Israel “must be removed,” he said, “because if this is what is necessary to jump start the parties to final status, the United States will have to intervene there three times a day. And that’s a non-starter.”
But it was clear, too, that in the five days between the first and second Presidents Conference meeting, the administration lost support within the Jewish establishment on account of distracting side issues raised by the administration itself.
Several speakers, for example, voiced their rage at the unidentified administration spokesman who spoke of offering Israel a “reprieve.”
“A reprieve is something you use for someone who’s done something wrong, or someone who is guilty and must be punished,” said Salberg, the Presidents Conference chairman, who had counseled holding off for the moment at the first meeting.
The first lady’s call for a Palestinian state was also a factor in the change of atmosphere, he said.
And despite a subsequent correction run by The Washington Post clarifying that the group had not entertained, much less formally voted down a specific motion to censure the administration, the story left many Jewish leaders livid. The article, under the headline “U.S. Jews Still Back President,” conveyed a gross distortion that the conference now simply had to counter with action, these leaders said.
At the second meeting centrists, such as Foxman, who had earlier counseled holding off, now led the Jewish leaders for action.
Alan Hevesi, the New York City comptroller and president of the B’nai Zion fraternal organization, charged Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with “lying” in claiming the administration’s recent proposals to Israel did not constitute an ultimatum — and refused to back down when Foxman urged him to think through the implications of his language.
A former chairman of the Presidents Conference, Kenneth Bialkin seemed to back up Hevesi, saying that Albright’s comments to the Presidents Conference in a presentation by phone during the earlier meeting were “not made up of whole cloth” and were “disingenuous.”
To be sure, even as they supported pressing the administration to reiterate the principle that Israel, alone, would determine its security interests, several leaders also stressed that the administration should nevertheless be encouraged to press on with its efforts to advance the stalled peace process. But even dovish members accepted the need to respond to the first lady’s call for a Palestinian state.
When its statement came out Monday night, it was clear that organized Jewry’s centrist core, after initial efforts to mitigate the conflict between Washington and Jerusalem rather than join it, had now shifted. Composed by Salberg and conference executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein, it formally put the administration on notice that its approach was crossing the line.
“Recent events and statements by United States officials have given rise to significant concerns and have created perceptions of a shift in U.S. policy toward Israel,” the statement warned. “While a range of views exists within the American Jewish community [on] various aspects of the peace process, there is full agreement that the Israeli government alone must make the difficult decisions affecting Israel’s security.”
Alluding to the administration’s proposal for the Israeli pullback, the statement said, “Putting forward specific percentages has created impressions that are inconsistent with previously enunciated positions.”
And despite U.S. intelligence findings that the Palestinians have substantially improved their security cooperation with Israel, the statement charged that any Israeli decision to withdraw from “strategically held territory” remained difficult in light of “the failure of the Palestinian Authority to live up to its past obligations” in fighting terrorism.
Finally, citing the first lady, the conference demanded that the president make clear to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat “that any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in violation of the Oslo Accords would be rejected by the U.S.”
“I thought this was not an unfair summary,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now, sounding resigned. “Mel and Malcolm did a very effective job of not criticizing the content of the administration’s bridging ideas and instead focused on what ‘perceptions’ were among some in the Jewish community.
“This document is not a declaration of war, or even a criticism,” argued Rosenblum. “It is hesitant about moving toward a showdown and looking for a way of expressing concern without expressing … direct criticism of the president’s policies.”
In an effort to marshal its forces, Peace Now and other dovish groups brought out over 1,000 supporters Tuesday night at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun to cheer former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie. Both called on their followers to strongly back President Clinton.
But for Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, the statement was “a clear rebuke of President Clinton’s policy of pressuring Israel to unconditionally give land away. It puts the Presidents Conference on the side of Israel, against the administration and against Arafat’s positions.”
For the organized community’s centrists, the statement’s meaning clearly fell somewhere in between. After a meeting Albright hastily called with selected members of the conference on Tuesday, Salberg described her hopes for her crucial meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday as “hopeful” and added: “We came away feeling that the environment is a very healthy one.”