The umbrella organization representing American Jewry is planning to issue a statement this week saying a majority of its members support the Gaza disengagement plan. But a draft circulated at midweek falls short of an outright endorsement by the Conference on Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, according to several members who have seen the statement.
Efforts to modify the statement and turn it into a full-scale endorsement — which would mark the first time the group has taken a position on the controversial issue — were being made by centrist members of the organization and resisted by some on the right.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference, said the statement was being circulated to the group’s 52 member organizations and that he expected it to be released by the end of the week. He said the statement would “reflect the discussion” members had on the issue during the group’s regularly scheduled meeting last week.
“There was a lengthy discussion on this and everybody had a chance to be heard,” Hoenlein said. “It’s a sensitive and complex issue.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said there was “no consensus in that room. … In the midst of a super-charged debate in Israel, the Presidents’ Conference should not inject itself.” The ZOA is opposed to the Gaza disengagement plan.
The Israeli Knesset is required to have three votes on the Gaza plan before adopting it and the first vote is scheduled for Monday.
But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the person who pressed the group to take a position, said the draft circulated at midweek lacked a declarative statement.
“The President’s Conference doesn’t issue minutes of its meetings,” he said. “This was a report of what happened.”
Foxman said he asked James Tisch, chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, to change the draft to make it a statement affirming that a majority of the Conference members support the Gaza plan. He said Tisch told him he would take it under advisement.
The discussion and debate come at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seeking to garner support for the plan from right-wing members of his Likud party who are resistant to a pullout. In addition, he has been reaching out to secular and religious right-wing parties seeking their support as well.
Foxman said he had urged the Presidents’ Conference to endorse the Gaza plan after returning from Israel in July and finding that the organization had been silent on the subject. The plan calls for Israel to close all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank and to relocate the 8,000 Jews living in Gaza.
Foxman said that in the 50 years since the Presidents’ Conference was formed, there had never been a situation in which both the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States had endorsed an Israeli position and the Presidents’ Conference remained mum.
Asked why he did not suggest it earlier in the year, Foxman said: “I didn’t realize it. I couldn’t imagine it.” What prompted him to press for it, Foxman said, was all the talk he heard during his Israel trip “about civil war and assassinating the prime minister.”
“I came back and said, ‘Don’t you think we should be supporting it since the president did and since Congress did?’” he said.
Foxman said that several weeks after mentioning it to Hoenlein, the top Presidents Conference executive told him he was having difficulty getting a consensus of the membership. Foxman said he then asked the members to sign a statement he wrote supporting the plan, but that he withdrew it after the issue was placed on last week’s agenda.
One of the questions raised by this issue is how the Conference defines consensus. There is no precise definition, and some members say that with small organizations having an equal voice as larger organizations, a relatively small minority of the Conference can derail a majority position.
The fact that until now the Presidents’ Conference has not endorsed the Gaza plan is seen by some liberals as indicative of the strong hold the right wing has on the organization. It is that grip, they say, that has restrained the organization from endorsing Israeli actions that in any way compromise Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza land.
Klein of ZOA said that during the discussion 17 people spoke and that nine were for the Gaza plan and eight against it. He said one representative said his group would support it if there was a clear consensus in favor.
Klein said the Gaza plan would “throw Jews out of their homes and give a terrorist regime more land.”
He was referring to the Palestinian Authority. Israel refuses to negotiate with its president, Yasir Arafat, contending that he is a terrorist who has no desire to live in peace with his Israeli neighbors.