Striding across the opulent lobby of Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel last Sunday morning, Michael Sonnenfeldt, chair of the pro-peace Israel Policy Forum, spotted Malcolm Hoenlein, the top executive of the nation’s leading Jewish umbrella group — the 50-year-old Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“It seems like I’m always following you around,” joked Sonnenfeldt, a private investor with a linebacker’s build, extending his hand.
“No, this time I’m following you,” replied Hoenlein. He was referring to the fact that during his first official visit to New York City, new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak chose to meet with IPF leaders before granting an audience to the Presidents Conference.
It appears Hoenlein’s observation is more than literal.
Indeed, Barak’s decision to meet with the IPF signaled the sudden emergence of this 6-year-old organization as one of the principal addresses in the American Jewish community on the peace process, alongside the Presidents Conference and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful Washington-based pro-Israel lobby.
Some Jewish leaders say by meeting with IPF, Barak was sending an unmistakable message to the Presidents Conference and others as he tries to speed through a comprehensive peace process with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon over the next 15 months.
“I think he was clearly sending a signal that he wasn’t happy about the perception that the conference was not fully supportive of the peace process, and that during the Rabin-Peres years they weren’t there when they were needed,” said Seymour Reich, a former Presidents Conference chairman and an IPF board member.
In fact, Barak set a new tone on several fronts during his inaugural weeklong American trip, meeting twice with President Clinton, delivering a well-received speech at a White House dinner and on Tuesday, conferencing with Capitol Hill leaders seeking bipartisan support for his peace initiatives.
Results of the visit included a strategic cooperation agreement between Washington and Jerusalem, a new understanding of the U.S. role in the soon-to-be-revived negotiations and some ruffled feathers among the State Department’s Mideast bureaucrats, the targets of some stinging words by Barak. The new Israeli leader clearly wants to deal directly with the president without layers of special negotiators in the way.
And even as he repeatedly called for Jewish unity, Barak delivered a polite slap to mainstream groups he believes have been too quick to use American politics to interfere with Israeli policy.
Jewish leaders heard the message, despite conciliatory words from the Labor Party chief at official sessions.
“If you had to summarize, his message was ‘I only have time for American Jews who support the peace process,’ ” said a leading pro-Israel activist in Washington. “He clearly wants to blunt the impact of the opposition lobbyists who are already flocking to Capitol Hill, and the Jewish groups that may give them important support.”
Perhaps the best example was the meeting with IPF, formed in 1993 by American supporters of the Labor Party to support the peace initiatives of Barak’s mentor, the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
IPF leaders were among a small group dining with Barak on Friday night at the Waldorf. And Barak met first with 43 IPF officials Sunday morning for about 45 minutes, following an earlier session between Barak and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Attendees at the IPF meeting included UJA-Federation leaders, the founder of a Modern Orthodox peace group and Wall Street investors, according to a list of participants provided by IPF.
Barak then met for approximately an hour with about 30 representatives of the Presidents Conference’s 54 members. Included in that session were about 10 former chairmen, such as former Reform movement head Rabbi Alexander Schindler, American Jewish Congress executive director Phil Baum and Anti-Defamation League associate director Kenneth Jacobson. An exact count could not be determined because Hoenlein would not provide a complete list of participants, saying it would lead to “misunderstandings.”
Current conference chairman Ronald Lauder called the meetings “superb.”
“It was excellent,” said Lauder, whose close association with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked concern among group members that he might be too partisan to lead the consensus-driven conference when he was nominated last spring.
Participants said the Presidents Conference session was substantive, as Barak addressed a series of questions regarding the Russia-Syria relationship, the dangers to Israel posed by Iraq and Iran, and the U.S. role in future peace negotiations.
One attendee described the meeting as “cordial,” in contrast to the perhaps less substantive but more “warm and friendly” gathering with the IPF. In fact, Barak told the IPF group that he “feels at home” with them.
Barak’s decision to meet with IPF is significant because the group has increasingly tried to position itself as an alternative to AIPAC, which Barak forces believe has been decidedly cool in its support for the peace process.
Some observers caution that IPF’s new stature may not reflect a permanent change in the American Jewish pecking order, and that Barak may have been using the group to send his strong concern about the need for a united front in supporting the peace process.
IPF leaders clearly were thrilled about the meeting and their newfound publicity, while publicly insisting that they are not seeking to replace or compete with the Presidents Conference or AIPAC.
But congressional observers note a vastly expanded IPF presence in Congress and some former prominent AIPAC staffers who are now on the IPF team. In the past year IPF has raised its congressional presence to counter anti-peace process groups that have built support, primarily among conservative Republicans and an AIPAC that they say has been ambivalent, at best, about the peace process.
IPF also has started mobilizing big campaign contributors to make the point that peace process supporters, too, can reward friends in Congress and punish enemies.
Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the apparent parity between IPF and the two pro-Israel giants — AIPAC and the Presidents Conference “is a not particularly subtle message.”
Barak, he said, “clearly wants the American Jewish community to know he is committed to the peace process. He is opposing the notion in some parts of the Jewish community in recent years that the peace process is threatening to Israel’s security.”
Both in his meetings with Jewish groups and his sessions Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Siegman said, the new Israeli leader “is trying to pre-empt the opposition. He’s saying, don’t try to sandbag me as you sandbagged Rabin.”
Reich said Barak conveyed that message with self-confidence and tact, but in unmistakable terms. “He made it clear that negotiations will be tough, and we shouldn’t do anything to upset them.”
Reich related that in response to a question about the controversial Har Homa settlement, Barak said he has to negotiate with the Palestinians, not the Presidents Conference, and he warned Jewish leaders not to “frighten me” with stories about who is more devoted to Jerusalem.
“He wasn’t being offensive or critical, but the message was obvious,” Reich said.
In private meetings with several Jewish leaders, the message was even more blunt: Barak said he expects major pro-Israel groups to show a unified front in supporting the peace process, and to refrain from giving advice on how to handle the nation’s security.
Already there are rumblings about IPF’ perceived increased influence. Hoenlein dismissed the group as a “partisan body set up to support the Labor Party” and rejected the notion that it would now have equal status with the Presidents Conference.
“There is no indication that [Barak] is putting them on parity with us at all,” Hoenlein said. He suggested that with a Labor government in place, IPF’s role could diminish because the group could wind up having differences with Barak over peace process details.
But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said he was very concerned that Barak has elevated the IPF, calling its leaders — specifically executive vice president Jonathan Jacoby and Washington office director Thomas Smerling — “extremist left-wing activists.”
“This is the only group I am aware of outside the Conference of Presidents that the prime minister is giving equal time, so I am concerned he is getting a skewed picture of what American Jewish consensus really is,” Klein said.
“My concern in his meeting with IPF is that their professional leadership is former activists with the New Jewish Agenda, an extreme left-wing group that called on Jews not to give money to Operation Exodus, and called on Israel to go back to 1967 borders and a compromise on Jerusalem.”
Jacoby, in response, said: “I am very concerned there are still people in the American Jewish community that think that guilt by association is the way to deal with our differences. I find it amusing that Mr. Klein attributes such great importance to what I did in graduate school.”
So who is this group that has been thrust in the spotlight?
IPF, following its creation in 1993 to support Rabin’s peace policies, shifted its focus three years later solely to support the Mideast peace process. In 1997, the organization merged with Project Nishma, a Washington-based organization specializing in mobilizing Israeli military authorities who argued that the peace process was in Israel’s security interests.
IPF’s mission today is to educate and mobilize influential Jewish leaders on behalf of the peace process, acting as a counterweight to hard-line opponents to the Oslo accords.
An independent and nonpartisan group, according to its brochures, IPF conducts ongoing polls of American-Jewish public opinion about the peace process and disseminates the results to political leaders and the media in an effort to influence the public policy debate.
Even as Barak was boosting IPF, he sought to reassure Jewish hard-liners by restating his belief in a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, promising that Israel would not return to the 1967 borders and saying that most West Bank settlements will not be removed as part of a permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians.
“He was very effective in making the argument that the pursuit of peace strengthens Israel economically, socially and military,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice-chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “He made it very clear that making peace and protecting Israel’s security are complementary, not mutually exclusive.”
Eric J. Greenberg is a staff writer. James D. Besser is Washington correspondent.