The start of final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians — now scheduled for Sunday in Ramallah — could ignite fierce battles in the American Jewish community as negotiators wrestle with issues deemed too explosive to take up in earlier rounds.
Several American Jewish leaders say their groups are working to lay the communal groundwork for talks that could fundamentally alter the geography of the Jewish state and pierce many pro-Israel articles of faith.
But others are concerned that the community is unprepared for the series of shocks that could result from agreements on Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood, refugees, settlements and water.
An Israeli official, asked if Jewish groups here were doing enough to prepare their constituents for the wrenching choices and flaming controversies of the final-status talks, turned
the question around.
“Are Israeli officials doing enough to prepare the Israeli public? That’s a more important question right now, because there are many who suspect the answer is no. As decisions are made in the final-status talks, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of strife. And that will be reflected in the United States, where feelings on many of these issues run very high, and perhaps where understanding of these issues is less.”
Too many American Jews, this official said, believe that the opening of final-status talks signals the homestretch of the long peace process. In reality, it will mark the beginning of negotiations that will make previous round seem simple in comparison.
This week’s Oslo summit, tacked on to a ceremony marking the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995, were intended to serve as a public starting block for the long-delayed negotiations.
The impetus for the meeting was the administration’s frustration over the fact that permanent-status talks had not yet begun, despite the ambitious schedule laid out in the Sharm el-Sheik agreement in September and the looming February deadline for an Israeli-Palestinian “framework” agreement laying out schedules and procedures for reaching a final settlement.
On Tuesday, speaking in Oslo, Clinton said that “we have revitalized the peace process and we’ve got these final status, the framework talks, off to a very good start.”
He indicated negotiating teams would begin meeting regularly, without press scrutiny, and that another three-way summit might take place “at the end of this process if enough progress has been made to make us all believe that, in good faith, we can actually get an agreement at a summit.”
If the upcoming talks move forward quickly, the American Jewish community could be in for some major shocks as long-held dogma on emotional issues such as Palestinian statehood suddenly become part of the give-and-take of negotiations.
“It will be a contentious period,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby. “We need to educate ourselves and the community on exactly what these issues are and what they mean. That’s something AIPAC has undertaken for the past three or four months, and it is being accelerated.”
Kohr said that many American Jews have only a skimpy idea of the issues that will be in play.
“Everybody knows about Jerusalem,” he said. “Some know about settlements. But beyond that, most are hard pressed to identify the other issues in the basket.”
But educational efforts are unlikely to sway the small but vocal segment of the Jewish community that has been critical of the Oslo process and doubtful that Yasir Arafat means it when he says he wants to live in peace with Israel.
“If Ehud Barak makes serious, one-sided concessions on Jerusalem, refugees or any other critical issue, there will be a very strong protest from both Israeli and American Jews,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “That’s what the polls indicate.”
Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, he said, comprise a kind of political red line for the Jewish right.
“There’s no question there’s going to be a very substantial and ongoing public debate, with a lot of people expressing deep concern if Barak breaks his pledge not to make concessions on these issues,” he said.
Supporters of the Barak government’s peace moves agree: the question of how to deal with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees under a final-status agreement and various plans to give Palestinians a capital they can call Jerusalem will collide with decades worth of pro-Israel activism that treated the issues as moral absolutes.
Klein predicted that groups “to the right of ZOA” will organize public demonstrations in major American cities and intensify their lobbying against administration policy.
On the other side of the debate, pro-peace process groups are poised to work in communities across the country to build support for the negotiations — but also to monitor an Israeli government that some fear may move too slowly.
Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now, said that “some of the work in preparing the community for these changes has already been done. But we need to do much more to legitimize the idea that Palestinian statehood and sovereignty are consistent with Israel’s security.
A key battleground, he said, will center on the inevitable need for even more U.S. financial assistance to help Israel bolster its security in the face of its changed borders, and economic assistance for the Palestinians.
“It will be an enormous challenge to convince the public that it’s in the United States’ interest to invest in peace, especially in today’s environment,” he said.
He said APN is also prepared to wage an energetic educational campaign to explain and build support for “creative conflict-resolving ideas. Some of these will come from the Israeli government; some will come from the outside.”
As an example, he cites the controversial Beilin-Abu Mazen plan for a Palestinian capital in an expanded Jerusalem. And he warned peace process supporters not to argue that the decisions Israel will make in the coming months are risk-free.
For all that, Rosenblum predicted the debate within the Jewish community may be less disruptive than many leaders predict.
“A lot of the big taboos have already been broken — including the taboo against Palestinian statehood,” he said. “We’re at a different place than we were five years ago.”