In the face of administration pleas for public support, Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman this week would speak only about his fears that the upcoming Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Md., would fail — and possibly lead to violence.
That stance, almost universal among mainstream pro-Israel groups, comes as peace process opponents mount a well-financed campaign to undermine public support for the conference, both here and in Israel.
Mainstream pro-Israel groups are “very concerned about raising expectations,” Foxman said. “These kinds of initiatives always raise expectations. When they are not met, the results usually includes new violence,” he added.
The ADL leader cited the 2000 Camp David negotiations and their collapse, which led to the second Palestinian intifada.
Other major Jewish leaders said their groups have kept out of the public fray because of widespread skepticism about whether the upcoming conference, now slated for late Novemeber, has any chance to produce positive results. They cite the political weakness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as President Bush. And there is the fact that Hamas controls Gaza and remains both out of the peace process and a significant factor to be reckoned with.
The wall of silence has prompted complaints from leaders on the Jewish left. But pro-peace process groups, too, have eschewed major public relations campaigns — in part because of a lack of resources.
Despite several initiatives by groups like Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), “people are in a holding pattern right now,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative and senior fellow for the New America Foundation. “There is great uncertainty about where Annapolis leads and uncertainty about the longevity of the Olmert government.”
And he said there are great doubts about the Bush administration’s commitment to a process it initiated.
“The moderate, realist pro-Israel camp hasn’t exactly had its socks blown off by how actively this administration has been engaged in peacemaking,” Levy said.
Officials with several pro-peace process groups describe an excruciating dilemma: Few believe calling a full-blown conference for late November was a good idea, and many fear the consequences of what they consider a likely failure.
“Public support isn’t the issue here, it’s a question of whether conditions in the region are ripe for a breakthrough,” said an official with one pro-peace process group. “Even if we had the money, would full-page ads in The New York Times change that?”
At the same time, “the only voices you’re hearing right now are from the far right,” said Seymour Reich, the IPF president. “More can and should be done by groups in the center.”
Mainstream pro-Israel groups say the biggest factor keeping them from publicly speaking out in support of the upcoming conference is fear of excessive expectations.
“We’re watching the way things unfold, and we don’t want to see expectations race ahead of realities,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “So we’re trying to guard against excessive, unrealistic hopes for the conference.”
The administration, he said, “has been seeking understanding and support. Not necessarily public support, but I think that would be welcomed.”
But the conference, he said, “is still a work in progress. It’s not exactly clear what people are being asked to support. This creates a big looming question mark.”
Underlying the expectations issue is deep skepticism about whether the conference is likely to produce even limited progress in the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“Our perception is that the gap between the parties remains wide, both in terms of expectations for the conference and in content,” Harris said. “It’s risky to be talking about it too much in advance, and it’s risky because events on the ground have a way of taking on a life of their own. Diplomacy works best when it tries to bridge the bridgeable.”
Harris said accelerating demands by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas make the odds of a successful conference even longer.
Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said that while his group supports the broad goals of the conference, it is not planning a “public campaign” because “there are still so many open questions about what’s going to happen, and even if it’s going to happen.”
But he said JCPA leaders may not have done enough to express their “appreciation for the administration’s efforts” – something he said the group will remedy through upcoming press releases and alerts to its member agencies.
That reticence has angered some strongly pro-peace process groups. Last week, Americans for Peace Now CEO Debra DeLee, writing in a Jewish Week Op-ed, accused major Jewish groups of a “deafening silence” as the date for the conference approaches.
But support from the left has been relatively low-profile, the result of both limited resources and doubts about the outcome of the conference.
APN has launched an “Annapolis Countdown” campaign for members and recently sponsored a two-day conference featuring former diplomats and Mideast experts.
“We are meeting with administration officials, often behind the scenes,” said Mark Rosenblum, one of the group’s founders. “There are meetings taking place that we are not talking about.”
But he conceded that building public support for a conference whose goals have not been fully spelled out – and which many fear could be a re-run of the failed 2000 Camp David talks – is difficult.
“It’s hard to look someone in the eye and say that past negotiating projects were a success, or that the reach for the holy grail in 2000 was a success. And the unilateralism that significant elements in the Israeli peace camp went along with… clearly, that doesn’t look like a success.”
Rosenblum said that a changed Palestinian leadership means “we undoubtedly have a team on the Palestinian side that has a desire to move forward. But beyond that desire, there is a question of what their capabilities are. The question is, now to you develop and enhance those capabilities in a way that allows the process to move forward, and not depend on them to do things they just can’t do at this time?”
That kind of uncertainty, he said, does not translate easily into high-profile public campaigns.
The Israel Policy Forum, also worried about the possibility of a breakdown at Annapolis, has focused its energies on marshalling expert opinion on how the conference can succeed and conveying that to administration officials.
Steven Spiegel, a UCLA political scientist and IPF leader, said that inside strategy was implemented because “the left and the center-left have public opinion on their side, we don’t have to go public. So our goal is to help refine the process rather than have a public campaign.”
With polls showing strong support for U.S. peacemaking efforts, “our goal is to help the administration pull it off,” he said. “And if they can’t, to help pave the way for the next step.”
IPF recently sent policymakers a detailed proposal by a group of former high-ranking diplomats for insuring the success of the conference – including a recommendation to make it clear that the Annapolis meeting is just the first in a serious of negotiating sessions.
But IPF officials say they have no hard evidence administration officials are paying attention.
Spiegel said that IPF — and APN, as well — are actively supporting an effort by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I.) and Charles Boustany (R-La.) to gather signatures on a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commending her efforts to “reinvigorate the peace process by convening an international meeting” and offering suggestions for “additional measures by the United States … to preserve the possibility of success.”
There is another factor in the relatively low-profile approach of Jewish peace groups: money.
While the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) is buying full-page ads in The New York Times critical of Palestinian leader Abbas, groups like APN and IPF “just don’t have those kinds of resources,” said an official with one of the groups. “Maybe if we did, our strategy would be different.”