Where To Turn Next in Stalled Middle East Talks?
U.S.-Israeli tensions over the stalled Mideast peace process and the perception in Washington that the hardline policies of the Netanyahu government deserve a big part of the blame have been shoved to the back burner by the unfolding confrontation with Iraq.
But the pot is still simmering as administration officials debate where to turn next in the frustrating quest for an agreement.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright late last week participated in a call with leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Albright repeated her promise that Washington would not impose a settlement, despite the growing pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to accept a new U.S. plan for phased Israeli withdrawals from up to 13 percent of the West Bank.
that her recent meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat were “difficult,” and she pointedly refused to deny reports that she had told both leaders that she was “sick and tired” of their unwillingness to make the tough decisions needed to move the negotiations forward.
“She repeated that there is no linkage between the Israeli- Palestinian talks and the Iraq situation,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the conference. “And she told us she had made that clear to the Arabs, which is very important.”
Peace process critics say that the administration is moving toward an evenhanded approach that ignores what they see as big differences between Israeli and Palestinian compliance with earlier agreements.
“What’s troubling is that Albright is implying an equivalence,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
“She is making it increasingly clear that she wants to pressure Israel to make concessions before Arafat honors his commitments; at least in the conference call, she seemed more sympathetic to Arafat than Netanyahu.”
But others reject that emphasis on assigning blame.
“Are the Palestinians more responsible than the Israelis for the failure to advance the peace process? Maybe,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “But at the end of the day, we still have to find a way of moving the process forward. The challenge is not to assign exact responsibility for the breakdown, but to encourage both sides to bridge their differences.”
Administration sources say the debate is continuing over how hard to push their new initiative after Albright’s personal diplomacy failed to move either leader closer to the American position.
This week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were due for more talks on the administration proposal. But most observers agree that the talks will continue to mark time until the U.S.-Iraq confrontation is resolved.
Flurry Of Action On Holocaust Assets
The issue of Jewish assets looted by the Nazis and never returned continues to percolate in Washington.
This week, the House banking committee was due to hold hearings on two issues: stolen art and insurance policies taken out by Holocaust victims.
Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), chair of the committee, has been vying with Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) to be the leading congressional voice for restitution of looted assets.
“The rape of Europe’s art treasures was not just a reflection of circumstances, it was a cause of bestial behavior,” Leach said this week.
Scheduled to testify were officials of several top art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Also on the roster were philanthropist Ronald Lauder, chair of both MoMA and the World Jewish Congress Commission for Art Recovery, and insurance industry executives.
Looted art will also be the subject of a major conference by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in late spring.
Also this week, the World Jewish Congress announced the creation of a 13-member task force on stolen art, which will consist of representatives of the biggest art museums in the country.
The unpaid insurance claims, according to congressional sources, could run into the billions of dollars.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) has introduced legislation intended to force insurance companies to make good on life and property insurance claims made by Holocaust victims and heirs; a similar bill offered by Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) is pending.
Engel’s proposal represents a Capitol Hill first: a similar measure was introduced in the Knesset at the same time.
School Vouchers Debate Heats Up
When the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) decided to re-evaluate its traditional opposition to school vouchers a year ago, few leaders of the organization expected that the process would result in a change in that position.
Sure enough, this year’s plenum, which begins on Feb. 21 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., will debate a recommendation that the group stick to its traditional policy.
That’s the position of the JCPA ad-hoc committee on vouchers, which insists that such programs — which provide government-funded school vouchers that parents can use in public, private or parochial schools — would “undermine public education and also violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Also as expected, the Orthodox Union — the leading proponent of vouchers under the JCPA umbrella — is crying foul.
“Our criticism is that the process was insufficiently thorough,” said Nathan Diament, director of the group’s Institute for Public Affairs (IPA). “The fact is that the committee that was formed to review the issue at the national level met only once in the course of a year.”
He said that the JCPA committee did not call in outside experts to explore the issue. “Thus, JCPA debates over the actual impact of school choice on student performance remain little more than speculation and conjecture,” he wrote in a letter to the chairs of the committee.
But JCPA officials say that the proposed policy statement —which still must be approved by delegates at next week’s meetings — accurately reflects the positions of most of the national organizations that are part of JCPA, as well as most local Jewish community councils.
Diament didn’t disagree with that argument, but insisted that the process was flawed.
“We were not naive enough to think there was going to be a change,” he said. “But we really hoped for a serious airing of the issue. We hoped that both sides of the argument would be heard, and that even opponents of vouchers would come away better informed on the issue. That isn’t what happened.”
The OU plans to submit a minority report on the issue — and fight the proposed policy resolution on the floor at the JCPA plenum.
JCPA will also use the plenum to unveil the results of a major survey of 13 Jewish communities covering a wide range of issues, from the Mideast peace process to the question of whether judges should be allowed to hang the Ten Commandments in their courtrooms.
Arms Sale Hypocrisy?
Is it a case of “do as I say, not as I do”?
For months, Israel, backed by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, has been pushing Congress and the Clinton administration to impose sanctions on Russian companies that contribute to Iran’s fast-moving missile development program.
This week, Trade and Industry Minister Natan Sharansky, who is heading up the government’s push to limit Russia-Iran military cooperation, was due in town to press the issue and counter strong pressure from the Clinton administration, which worries that additional sanctions will interfere with their relations with the Yeltsin government.
But Israeli companies haven’t shown much restraint in dealing with both Russia and China — primary supporters of weapons proliferation the Middle East.
Over the weekend, a top official of the state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) complained to Reuters that pressure from Washington was limiting the company’s business with the two arch-proliferators.
IAI and Russian firm are working together to develop reconnaissance aircraft for China; a similar partnership is developing anti-tank weapons for Turkey.
So why should Congress get tougher with Russian companies, while Israel’s defense industry is cutting deals with the leading proliferators?
“The timing of these comments was poor,” an Israeli official conceded. “But the fact remains that it’s in everybody interests to ensure that Iran’s missile and nuclear programs do not advance. That’s a separate issue from Israel’s dealings with Russia and China on conventional weapons.”
But pro-Israel lobbyists worry that the appearance of a double standard may make it harder for them to sell tougher sanctions on Capitol Hill in the face of administration opposition.
Jubilee Doings In D.C.
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Jewish state may be mired in controversy in Israel, but in Washington the event promises to be a dazzling display of that country’s cultural achievements.
Israeli music, dance and theater will be showcased at the Kennedy Center for six weeks beginning late this month.
“There’s something happening almost every day,” said Rachel Marani, the cultural attache at the Israeli embassy. “It’s the most ambitious cultural program we’ve ever had.”
The schedule includes the Batsheva Dance Company, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, the Jerusalem String Quartet and Israeli film and literary festivals. There’s even a session on the “Culinary Arts of Israel.”
The Kennedy Center series will end with a bang on May 9 with a performance art session by the Zik Group. Zik, according to promoters, is “a closely controlled anarchy in multimedia: theater, sculpture, electric semi-rock music commissioned especially for each performance.”