Whether this week’s dramatic Camp David summit between Israel and the Palestinians succeeds or ends in rancorous failure, the results could be difficult for American Jews to swallow.
But Jewish leaders here say Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his government have done little to prepare the community for the emotional jolts if Israel makes the expected deep concessions on bedrock issues such as Jerusalem and borders.
“I’m not sure anybody is really prepared for either the success or the failure of the summit,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “The stakes have never been higher; the moment of truth is at hand. Everyone with even the remotest interest in Israel will be have an opinion, and know that this is the moment to
Harris said the Israeli government “has not done enough to prepare the groundwork here with the American Jewish community. There are those in our community who have been sending the message to Israel for some time now, arguing that there is insufficient understanding of the game plan here and how we can prepare for it.”
Jewish leaders also fear a destructive impact on Capitol Hill as Jewish groups wage bitter warfare over the extra aid packages that any Israeli-Palestinian deal is expected to require.
Jews here may be better prepared for the failure of the summit than its success, despite predictions that it could lead to a return to violence and confrontation.
“There have been so many fits and starts, so many zigs and zags, that expectations are low,” said Harris. “Most informed American Jews understand that prophecy in the Mideast is best left to the biblical prophets.”
Still, community leaders say a renewal of violence and confrontation could accelerate the gradual erosion in pro-Israel passion among American Jews.
“Jews will rally around Israel if the summit fails and we go back to a kind of intifada,” said a big-city community relations official. “But the prospect of going through all that again, when we seemed so close to peace, is demoralizing, and it could contribute to the plague of apathy we’ve been seeing in our communities.”
Across the board, Jewish leaders agree that any deal at Camp David — a full-blown agreement or the much likelier partial agreement that postpones some issues such as Jerusalem — will produce pain and dissension in the American Jewish community, and that the Barak government has done little to ease the potential shock.
This week the prime minister belatedly designated several officials to fan out across the United States explaining the government’s positions and bolstering support.
But that’s too little, too late, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“His emissaries are nice people, but they don’t know very much about what is likely to happen at Camp David,” he said. “Barak hasn’t shared his plans and his ideas with his own people, so it’s obvious he can’t share them with us. That will make it much more difficult when we get to the point of a breakthrough, which will involve compromise and risk.”
That concern mirrors growing unhappiness in Israeli government circles that Barak has not built bridges to potential allies on key peace process questions, a major factor in this week’s government breakdown.
American Jews expect concessions on hot-button issues such as Jerusalem, other Jewish activists said. But recent leaks in the Israeli press suggest Barak is prepared to cede much more than was publicly contemplated only a few months ago, including the Jordan Valley, control over some East Jerusalem neighborhoods and up to 94 percent of the West Bank.
Jews here will “do some hard swallowing” if faced with those kinds of concessions, said Martin Raffel, director of the Israel Task Force of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Some of the ideas that have been floated in recent weeks will be emotionally difficult for our community.”
Raffel, like most pro-Israel leaders, said the community will rally behind Barak if he cuts a deal. But pivotal to that support, most say, is his plan to submit any deal to Israeli voters in a high-stakes referendum — a vote that could be coupled with new elections in the wake of this week’s coalition collapse.
“Even if an agreement goes beyond the kinds of things American Jews have contemplated in the past, I believe the government will negotiate carefully and sensibly,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Recently the group began a nationwide effort to bolster support for the peace talks. This week a UAHC delegation was at Camp David to welcome negotiators.
But a key to that support, Rabbi Yoffie said, is Barak’s referendum promise.
“If there is an agreement that is endorsed by the Israeli people, there will be some very loud voices of protest here, a lot of noise, but in the final analysis, American Jews will accept the wisdom of the government and the Israeli people,” he said.
That noise will be particularly loud on Capitol Hill, where peace process opponents will try to block the big aid packages that are expected to be important pillars of any deal.
Aid remains the “soft underbelly” of the peace process,” said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Center, a pro-peace process group. “They correctly understand that U.S. help to the parties is a key ingredient. If they can pull on that loose thread, maybe they can unravel the whole thing.”
Smerling predicted that Congress will ultimately approve new aid requests, if they are presented as part of a successful peace package.
“In the end, Congress will look to where the bulk of their constituents are,” he said. “Most will line up squarely behind Barak if a deal is made. Congress has become much more sophisticated in recognizing that a small minority, no matter how loud, doesn’t represent the Jewish community.”
But even if opponents don’t succeed in blocking aid, the heated debate could undermine confidence in the peace process in Israel before voters go to the polls in a referendum.
That’s exactly the strategy of groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel, which has been working with congressional Republicans to build opposition to new aid even before a deal is cut.
“Our strategy is to get Congress to make a statement to the Israeli people saying ‘it’s OK for you to make your deal, but don’t be assured that the money will be forthcoming,’ ” said AFSI chairman Herbert Zweibon. “Don’t be assured by major commitments of money made by a lame-duck administration.”
He said that American Jews “don’t understand the implications if Israel’s red lines are crossed.”
“They seem to put their trust in the leadership of Israel,” Zweibon said. “They’ve done this historically, and it’s proven to be very dangerous.”