It was an almost impossible political challenge: This week Jewish leaders were trying to put a positive spin on increasingly panicky, inconsistent U.S. efforts to end an Israeli-Palestinian crisis that continues to spin out of control.
The pinball policies bounced from the harshest-ever condemnations of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to fierce new pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The new U.S. squeeze produced the start of an Israeli pullout from West Bank towns that were recently entered as part of Sharon’s campaign to do what Arafat has refused to do for years: dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.
Privately, some top Jewish leaders expressed consternation at what they said was a wholesale U.S. capitulation to Arafat. Publicly, the reaction was a combination of political caution and uncertainty.
Part of the
unusually low-key reaction is the result of “a real element of confusion about where the administration is going,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “Right now, they have a great deal of capital with the Jewish community because of the president’s understanding of Israel’s situation.”
But Hordes noted “growing concern” about the administration’s demand that Israel stop its sweeping military effort prematurely — a demand not consistent with “the administration’s own anti-terror policies.”
Those concerns, however, were not evident in the public statements of most Jewish leaders.
“American Jews find themselves caught between the revulsion against terrorism and their sympathy for Sharon, even if there isn’t total agreement with his policies — and basic support and sympathy for this president,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “It’s a hard line to walk.”
Bush, he said, has been “very good on Israel and exceedingly tough on terrorism, at a time when hardly any other leader in the world has been willing to speak out forcefully.”
As a result, he said, most Jewish leaders are willing to overlook actions that could produce conflict with the Sharon government in the future — including the president’s call in his Rose Garden speech for a settlements freeze.
Confusion about an administration that seems to be in panic mode is another factor in the muted response.
“The Jewish groups are reluctant to say too much, because they don’t have any idea where the administration — which itself is badly divided — is going,” said Robert O. Freedman, a leading Mideast expert. “And the reason for that is the administration doesn’t know what it’s doing; they keep shifting positions.”
A key reason for the confusion: While Bush himself has a visceral understanding of the problems facing Israel, other voices in the administration are expressing strong fears about the impact of the worsening crisis on other American allies in the region, amid widespread perception that U.S. policy is tilted more than ever toward Israel.
“They’re especially concerned about the stability of Jordan,” Freedman said. “That’s the big worry. The people who are rioting are the Palestinians, on one hand, and the Islamicists who are trying to undercut the regime on the other.”
The administration had insisted it would not resume top-level, cease-fire efforts until Palestinian violence had subsided — but concerns about regional partners such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Freedman said, forced a quick abandonment of that position.
The administration is concerned as well about rumblings of a new oil crunch. This week Iraq announced a cutoff of oil sales to this country.
“The administration’s policy now is being driven by the fact they are completely spooked by what they see as a crumbling situation in the region,” said a top pro-Israel activist here. “That’s why we’re seeing such wide swings, such disparities.”
The Jewish community’s uncertain reaction to evidence of policy disarray in Washington was evident in press releases and statements issued by diverse groups after Bush’s Rose Garden speech last week.
In a somber address, the president chided both sides, called for an Israeli pullout from the recently reoccupied Palestinian towns and raised the issue of a settlements freeze, a hot button in relations with the hardline Sharon.
Almost every major group issued statements praising the speech. But most focused only on selected portions and ignored the rest.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, expressed appreciation of “President Bush’s defense of Israel’s right to protect its people from terror,” while gently protesting the administration’s efforts to “place a time limit on Israel’s acts of self-defense.”
Americans for Peace Now (APN) praised the administration’s “decision to dispatch Secretary Powell to the region and (the) comments about the need for Israel to stop its current incursion while the Palestinians and Arab states do more to combat terrorism.”
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations issued a statement supporting “strong American mediation and engagement in the region.”
Even the American Muslim Council, a vehemently anti-Israel group, issued a statement praising the speech, focusing entirely on Bush’s call for an end to Israeli military incursions.
Jewish members of Congress played the same cautious game.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has emerged as one of the most hawkishly pro-Israel members of the House, praised the President’s speech and criticized the new pressure only in roundabout terms.
“Israel is now exercising the Bush doctrine as it fights the scourge of terrorism that has taken so many lives,” he said in a statement. n