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November 25, 2004

US Jewish Groups Press Mideast Peace


by William Fisher

A growing number of American Jews believes that major changes in U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian policies are essential to the resumption of any meaningful negotiations for peace – but they are fighting an uphill struggle because of President George W. Bush's support for the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Many peace advocates are hoping for a new opening following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent call for a new initiative from the Bush administration.

While virtually all Jewish-American organizations strongly favor the protection of the state of Israel, many of these groups oppose Sharon's policies, call for dismantlement of West Bank settlements, and favor a negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

One of those bodies, Chicago-based Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), recently asked its 16,000 members to "flood the White House with messages in support of naming an internationally recognized envoy dedicated to facilitating the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now."

In an open letter presented to Bush, the organization urged the president to "unambiguously recommit to bringing about a negotiated settlement, and to signal his resolve by appointing an internationally recognized envoy to the Middle East within the first 100 days of his new administration."

Most observers believe Bush's pro-Sharon policies won him 25 percent of the Jewish vote in the Nov. 2 presidential election – a 32 percent increase over the 2000 poll. U.S. Jews have traditionally voted for Democrats.

The Brit Tzedek v'Shalom letter also called on Bush "to pursue full implementation of the disengagement plan and a renewal of negotiations leading to a final status accord" between Israelis and Palestinians, adding, "The current stalemate ... serves as a lightning rod for international terrorism and threats to our nation's security."

"The demographic reality in Israel makes clear the urgency of a two-state solution, the key to preserving Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state," stressed the letter.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, co-founded in 2002 by a former member of the Israeli parliament, calls on Washington to stand firm in rejecting Israel's conditions that undermine future negotiations, including the demand for unqualified support of the current route of the wall Israel is building to separate Palestinians and Israelis living in the West Bank and for recognition of the permanence and legitimacy of Israel's large settlements in the West Bank.

"Although we are in favor of evacuating settlements," says Brit Tzedek President Marcia Freedman, "we can only support a responsible withdrawal that does not undermine the possibility of a future negotiated settlement and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

Another organization, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, recently wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell to remind the administration of "the need for withdrawal [from Gaza] to be directly linked to a return to the negotiating table."

A coalition of organizations representing some 1.5 million U.S. Jews, the Action Center also expressed concern about terrorism against innocent civilians and "the troubling humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians." It urged Washington "to stay actively involved in moving the peace process and negotiations forward toward a two-state solution."

However, while these "dissenters" from what many people assume is Jewish-American conventional wisdom on Israel are succeeding in making their voices heard at high levels in the Bush administration, they are not getting anything like the financial support, press coverage or attention from office-seeking politicians afforded to the more powerful and well-connected groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

As Esther Kaplan wrote in The Nation magazine July 12: "AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents [of major Jewish organizations], along with their powerful fellow travelers, Christian Zionists, have forged a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Middle East policy must privilege the 'special relationship' between the United States and Israel."

"In practice, this solid consensus means putting Israeli security before peace; supporting even such extreme Israeli measures as the separation wall and assassinations; and delegitimizing the Palestinian leadership."

But groups calling for a more evenhanded approach to the Arab-Israeli issue contend there is growing support for their position. For example, "ever since the 1993 Oslo Accord proved that negotiations were possible, surveys have consistently found that 50 to 60 percent of American Jews favor ending the occupation and dismantling settlements in return for peace," found a 2002 poll by Zogby International.

The California-based Tikkun Community calls on the Palestinian people to acknowledge the right of Jews to maintain their own homeland in the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel, with Jewish control over the Jewish section of Jerusalem and the Western Wall; calls on Palestinians to stop acts of terror against Israel; and opposes Israel's violations of Palestinian human rights.

Another California-based group, Jewish Voice for Peace, founded in 1996, is especially concerned that the Israeli government is "continuing to build settlements in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem."

In April 2002 it organized more than 100 people to protest at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, becoming one of the first U.S. Jewish groups to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

Jews Against the Occupation, an organization in the New York City area, rejects the notion that it is "necessary" to subjugate Palestinians for the sake of keeping Jews safe.

The group claims that security can only come from mutual respect; contends that the occupation of Palestine is only worsening the position of Jews in the Middle East and around the world; opposes the demolition of Palestinian houses and crops in the occupied territories; calls for an end to U.S. government aid to Israel; and opposes the Israeli government's "attack on the Palestinian economy."

One of the older peace groups, Rabbis for Human Rights of North America, recently sent an open letter to Sharon protesting Israel's house-demolition policy. It was signed by 400 rabbis, including leaders of some of the largest congregations in the United States.

Older groups like Americans for Peace Now (APN), push for active White House and State Department engagement in the peace process, especially efforts to: broker a new interim understanding between Israelis and Palestinians; facilitate final status arrangements that reconcile Israeli security with Palestinian statehood; and encourage negotiations between Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

Though these groups lack support from most of the larger Jewish donors, their numbers are growing. APN has some 25,000 supporters; Brit Tzedek, 16,000. Members believe there is substantial room for growth, approaching AIPAC's 65,000 membership.

They are also positioning themselves as valuable Palestinian allies if a restarted peace process becomes a reality.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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