Palestinian Statehood And Jewish Settlements
A delegation of Palestinian negotiators were in town this week for consultations about the long-feared May 4 deadline, when the Oslo interim period expires — and when Yasir Arafat has threatened to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood.
Few observers here expect him to do so. But the Palestinian team hoped to extract as much as possible from Washington in return for a promise to defer any action on statehood.
As they arrived, Palestinian officials said that their bottom-line demand was a written commitment by the administration to support statehood later, in return for a postponement of the May 4 declaration.
Later, a PA spokesman said that the negotiators were really seeking a letter laying out Washington’s commitment to accelerate Mideast peacemaking efforts after the Israeli elections in May and to define broad principles for the long-delayed “final status” negotiations.
Administration sources say they were keeping clear of any commitments on statehood, an issue that they fear could produce a backlash in the upcoming Israeli elections, but they were not so reticent about the explosive settlements issue.
Publicly and privately, the administration has been expressing growing anger about what officials here see as a deliberate pattern of noncompliance by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who they say made repeated promises during October’s Wye River negotiations to halt construction of new settlements and expansion of old ones.
Last week State Department spokesman decried an “accelerated pattern” of settlement activity. Reports in the Israeli press say U.S. spy satellites have identified 12 or more new settlements in the West Bank.
Much of the new data about settlements is coming from American for Peace Now, an affiliate of the Israeli peace organization, whose “Settlements Watch” program now uses three on-the-ground observers in the West Bank and aerial surveillance.
“It’s not a secret that the administration gets information from a lot of sources. The Settlements Watch project and Peace Now have a well deserved reputation for accuracy and thoroughness,” said APN’s political director, Mark Rosenblum. “Obviously the people receiving this information — which we also supply to the Israeli government — find it credible and useful.”
In an unusually terse statement last week, the Netanyahu government responded to the rising controversy by stating that “Israel and the United States have always had their differences on the matter of settlements,” and that Israel has “no plans to build new communities in Judea and Samaria.”
An Israeli official said that at least in part, the administration’s growing focus on settlements is meant to mollify the Palestinians, who will not get what they want from Washington on the statehood question.
“They will get something that they can spin as a victory on April 27 (when the Palestinian Central Council meets to consider the statehood question). Harsh messages on settlements will be part of that.”
But administration sources say the reaction goes beyond a simple gambit to deflect the statehood issue. Officials here are genuinely angry, they say, about what they claim is Netanyahu’s double dealing on the issue.
New Twists In Sheinbein Saga
The saga of Samuel Sheinbein, the Maryland teen whose flight to Israel after a grisly murder in a Washington suburb touched off a diplomatic incident, took another strange twist this week when the Montgomery County state’s attorney, himself Jewish, formally asked Israel to move the entire trial to this country.
Sheinbein is due to go before an Israeli court on May 16 in what could be the start of long and expensive proceedings.
Maryland’s request for Sheinbein’s extradition for the 1997 murder of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr. was rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court because of a 1978 law barring the extradition of Israeli nationals accused of crimes in other countries.
Sheinbein, who never lived in Israel, based his successful fight against extradition on his father’s residence in pre-independence Palestine.
In a letter sent to prosecutor Hadassah Naor, State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler said that there is legal precedent for trying Sheinbein in this country using foreign judges and prosecutors, and it would enhance the prosecution’s ability to win conviction.
“We have an incredibly strong case against Sheinbein, but if the trial takes place in Israel and there’s no subpoena power, it would weaken the case significantly,” Gansler said in an interview.
Moving the trial to a courthouse in Maryland or the Israeli embassy in Washington, he said, would save Israel money, as well, since it wouldn’t have to bankroll transportation for dozens of witnesses.
“There’s absolutely no downside to my proposal,” Gansler said. “The trial would still be in Hebrew, before the same three judges. And if convicted, he would still serve his sentence in Israel.”
At press time there was no comment from Israeli authorities. Gansler said the proposal makes good sense — but he’s not optimistic it will be accepted.
“After all, it would have been the right thing to do to send Sheinbein back, and they didn’t do that,” he said.
Also this week, the Knesset passed a measure changing the controversial law Sheinbein employed to prevent his extradition.
Under the new law — which is not retroactive — people holding Israel citizenship but who do not live in Israel will be subject to extradition and trial abroad. Israeli nationals may be extradited, as well, but they must be returned to Israel to serve their sentence.
High Drama At American Zionist Movement Meeting
There was high drama at this week’s convention of the American Zionist Movement in Washington as Reform forces, bolstered by their strong showing in the World Zionist Congress vote two years ago, staged a palace coup.
A nominating committee had tagged Baltimore’s Jim Schiller, the former president of the Zionist Organization of America, for reelection as chairman of the umbrella group.
Reform forces, led by the ARZA/World Union, had nothing against Schiller — but they claimed the WZO vote meant that the Reform group should play a bigger role in the Zionist
In a move from the floor, the ARZA forces nominated their own candidate, Norman Schwartz. Then, an angry Seymour Reich, chair of the nominating committee and a former AZM president, said he had been instructed to withdraw Schiller’s name if there were another nomination.
A day after the vote, Schiller — who will also face a move to force him from his seat on the Jewish Agency — was gracious about his ouster.
“ARZA won about 50 percent of the vote in the 1997 election, so it was only natural they would want the reward of winning within AZM,” Schiller said.
Reich was less charitable.
“It was an exercise of raw political power by ARZA and Mercaz (the Conservative Zionist movement), and I thought it was an abuse,” he said. “They had no quarrel with Jim Schiller. What they really were after was his seat on the Jewish Agency.”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, ARZA’s executive director, said ARZA was only taking its rightful place in the Zionist leadership.
“The change reflects the desires of over 50,000 voters who wanted to put the Reform movement in positions of authority in AZM,” he said. “It was quite astonishing that we had to go through all these machinations to be adequately represented. It shows AZM’s resistance to change.”
Before the nominating process began, he said, ARZA pushed for top-level representation in the group, but their appeals were ignored.
Jewish Neo-Cons Get Wistful
A group of Jewish conservatives waxed nostalgic last week about the good old days of the Reagan administration at a conference on the “History of American Jewish Political Conservatism” at American University last week.
Despite the wistful tone, the assembly of 250 Jews came away encouraged by a rising generation of conservatives who have a religious commitment their neo-conservative forebears eschewed.
The program was sponsored by the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University in Philadelphia. It featured a number of Jewish conservative stars, including author and critic Midge Decter, columnist Charles Krauthammer and Elliot Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration.
Murray Friedman, who serves as director of both the Feinstein Center and the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee, was the organizer.
“It’s important to examine the origins and history of American conservatism because Jewish conservatives played a major role in the ascendant movement,” he said. “But their
impact on the Jewish community itself has been more mixed.”
Conservative candidates get substantial Jewish votes in some local elections, he said — New York and Los Angeles are examples —“but that has not reached the national level.”
“Jews are still terribly frightened about the rise of the Christian right, and people such as Pat Robertson. This is a serious deterring force for Jewish conservatives.”
But the conference also pointed to a new generation of Jewish conservatives, he said, who are poised to push the movement to the next level.
“One of their most interesting features is their relationship to Judaism,” he said. “The earlier generation of Jewish conservatives were primarily secular Jews, trying to make it in American life. They were interested in religion, but it was an instrumental interest. Religion was something that promotes order in society. They weren’t terribly interested in God.”
The rising generation of Jewish conservatives, he said, “are seriously interested in their religion and in their cultural tradition.”