Baby Steps Against Terror
Implementation of October’s Wye River agreement is on hold, and officials in Washington are glum about the prospects for any progress in Israeli-Palestinian before a new government is in place in Jerusalem. But on one level, at least, things are inching forward — although “inching” is, in fact, the operative description.
Last week’s meeting of the Trilateral Anti-Incitement Committee, created at the Wye conference in an effort to combat incitement to violence and terror, produced what U.S. and Israeli officials are calling “incremental progress.”
“The parties agreed that this meeting was productive,” said State Department spokesman James Foley. “Both parties attach great importance to the Committee and its mandate. …The parties believe it is essential to break down the barriers of mistrust and change the images they hold of each other.”
Israeli officials say the meeting — the seventh, but the first in Washington — reached an important milestone. For the first time, they say, negotiators agreed to narrow the focus to incitement of violence and terror, not a broader kind of political incitement that Israeli officials say had been emphasized by the Palestinians.
“There’s still no exact definition of ‘incitement,’ but at least we are moving back to the core issues,” said an Israeli official after the two-day meetings. “For the first time, the Palestinians seemed to understand what we were talking about.”
This official credited Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame and a member of the American delegation, with effectively conveying Israeli’s concerns about the relationship between harsh rhetoric by Palestinian officials and violence on the ground.
The emphasis at last week’s session was on mass media. Negotiators agreed to several concrete steps to reduce incitement, including exchange programs for newspaper columnists and joint briefings for Israeli and Palestinian journalists.
The next meeting, which will be held in April in the Middle East, will focus on education. A primary Israeli complaint is that Palestinian textbooks and instructional materials still emphasize the armed struggle against the Jewish state.
But mostly, the two sides simply agreed to continue talking about the issue.
“Progress is very limited, but this process is important because it’s the only thing happening right now,” said Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a leading Mideast commentator, who added that the active U.S. role in committee deliberations maintains the precedent of using Washington to resolve disputes between the two sides.
Administration officials agreed that the committee had moved forward a few steps, but cautioned that the talks on incitement do not offset the stall in implementing the Wye agreement — a stall they say is largely Israel’s fault.
And officials here continue to believe Israeli leaders have engaged in a different kind of incitement when they make what Washington regards as exaggerated claims about the release of Palestinian murderers and terrorists by Yasir Arafat’s government.
Reconciliation Breakfast A Bust
Maybe the problem was the decision not to provide food, but last week’s Senate “reconciliation” breakfast, organized by a Chicago rabbi and sponsored by two senators, one Jewish and one Christian, attracted only six lawmakers. A substantial majority was expected for a session intended to heal the wounds opened by the bitter impeachment debate.
The hosts were Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). The actual planning was done by the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, the Washington affiliate of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the group’s founder and president, tried hard to put a positive spin on the event.
“Given the size of the room, the turnout was fine,” he said. “The program was nice, showing the great diversity in the American religious experience. It was balanced between Democrats and Republicans. So I’m not unhappy with the results.”
He said that a regular monthly Bible class the day before had drawn more than 20 lawmakers. “It was an emotional session dealing with reconciliation, so maybe people were thinking they’d already been through it,” he said. “Maybe they feel they can only daven once a week.”
The rabbi offered this theory about the poor attendance: “Maybe the message was that the country has already moved on,” he said. “Less than two weeks after the impeachment vote, they were showing they’ve already reconciled to a certain extent. So a symbolic service of reconciliation could be seen almost as a step backwards.”
But then he conceded that there’s little evidence most lawmakers are ready to kiss and make up.
“The people who came issued a call for reconciliation that goes far beyond the Senate,” he said. “But it may be that some people aren’t ready to put the divisions aside. I don’t know.”
Undaunted, the rabbi said he will now promote a “national day of reconciliation,” tentatively scheduled for the Wednesday after Thanksgiving.
Workplace Freedom Push
Speaking of Brownback, the Kansas Republican will apparently be the lead GOP sponsor for the revived Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a measure intended to make things easier for employees whose religious obligations require special accommodations from employers.
Observant Jews who often face difficulties getting time off for Shabbat and holidays are among the most obvious beneficiaries of the proposed law, which is being supported by most Jewish groups and a number of non-Jewish organizations, including the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals the National Council of Churches and the National Council of Muslim Women.
Brownback takes the place of former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who retired in January. The lead Democratic sponsor is Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).
Current law requires reasonable accommodations for workers unless they impose undue hardships on employers. But the courts have interpreted that standard in a way that gives employers excessive latitude, at least according to Jewish groups. WFRA, as the measure is unmusically called, would restore the religious accommodation protections passed by Congress in 1972.
Rumors And Retirements
It’s been a tough few weeks for pro-Israel politicos on Capitol Hill.
First came the announcement that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a former United Jewish Appeal chairman and a pro-Israel mainstay, will not seek a fourth term next year. Lautenberg, citing the exhausting process of raising a big campaign war chest, reversed an earlier promise to seek re-election.
Then, Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) jumped ship, announcing he would not seek a third term. Bryan has been a strong supporter of the pro-Israel agenda in Washington.
Those retirements, as well as the previously announced decision by veteran Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) not to run next year, threw cold water on Democratic hopes to regain control of the Senate next year.
On the Republican side, there are reports that Sen. Connie Mack (Fla.), a pro-Israel hard-liner who has been a leading critic of the Palestinian Authority and a fervent defender of the Netanyahu government, is considering retirement in 2000.
During a trip to Israel last week with leaders of the Zionist Organization of America, Mack said he had not yet decided about a third term.
Indecision isn’t a problem for Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), a leading Jewish member of the House. Sources here confirm that Deutsch is already running hard for Mack’s seat. A Mack retirement would make Deutsch’s job much easier.
Buchanan: Fringe Player Or Mainstream GOPer?
Jewish Democrats were licking their chops in the wake of this week’s announcement by columnist Pat Buchanan that he is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
Buchanan, blasted by Jewish groups for his harsh criticisms of Israel and his blend of angry populism and isolationism, made the announcement in New Hampshire, where he won a surprise victory in the 1996 primary.
But Jewish Republicans say not to worry; a strong field of mainstream candidates, led by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has pushed Buchanan to the farthest margins of the party.
“He won’t be a serious candidate,” predicted Matthew Brooks, director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Jewish Republican group. “His neo-isolationism and his unique brand of social conservatism put him far outside the mainstream of where the Republican party is today.”
Jewish Democrats, not surprisingly, scoffed at that argument.
“Pat Buchanan is clearly at home in the party of Trent Lott, Tom DeLay and David Duke,” said Stephen Silberfarb, associate director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “On social issues, you’d have to say he’s right in the Republican mainstream.”