Posted on May 16, 1994 in Washington Watch

For at least the past two decades the mainstream of the U.S. Jewish community operated as a disciplined political force. They were largely unified in their political goals and well-coordinated in their tactics.

The three pillars that formed the base around which the major Jewish groups built their consensus were:

· opposition to arms sales to Arab countries;
· support for U.S. aid to Israel;
· opposition to the PLO or any recognition of Palestinian national rights.

But events of the past four years have weakened those pillars and are threatening the consensus that forged U.S. Jewish political unity. The U.S.-Arab coalition that fought the Gulf War, the constraints on the U.S. budget, and now the Israel-PLO peace accord have all combined to create a real crisis for the leadership of the Jewish organizations. In some cases there is disarray, in other instances turmoil.

In recent months signs of this internal discord have appeared repeatedly over such issues as President Clinton’s nomination of Strobe Talbott as Undersecretary of State, the decision of the Clinton Administration of to support a UN Resolution condemning the Hebron massacre, and the Israel-PLO peace agreement.

There are a number of factors which account for each of these and other instances of discord within the American Jewish community. They are in part a reflection of the Labor-Likud split in Israel, but there is a domestic power struggle underway as well.

A principle factor in the current difficulties has been the reemergence of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) as a political power within the Jewish community. All but dead only a few years ago, the ZOA has been given a new lease on life with the election of Morton Klein, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, as its President.

The ZOA is, in fact, an affiliate of the Likud in the World Zionist Congress. But that alone doesn’t account for its recent troublemaking. Klein, it appears, is not supporting the peace accords. He also has aspirations of being a domestic political force in Jewish American politics. So it is not surprising that Klein and the ZOA have begun to attack the Israeli government, the U.S. Administration, and the peace agreement.

What is disturbing is that their attacks have won support for the right-wing group from a number of members of Congress and several Jewish organizations. But their initial success has come at some cost. While many mainstream Jewish groups were hesitant to challenge the ZOA at first, some are now voicing their displeasure at Klein’s tactics as are leading figures in Israel’s Labor government.

Part of the difficulty that many Jewish leaders have in attacking Klein and his group is that the issues that the ZOA is raising have been central for so many years to pro-Israel thinking in the U.S. “It is,” as one liberal Jewish leader said recently, “difficult for the community to adjust its thinking overnight. Even if Rabin is working with `Arafat, how do we now start lobbying for foreign aid to the PLO?”

So when Klein attacks the Clinton Administration for the Talbott nomination (because of Talbott’s past negative comments about Israel) or its support for a UN Resolution (because of the resolution’s mention of Jerusalem as “occupied”) – he finds support from some other Jewish groups and from members of Congress who are eager to support causes favorable to pro-Israel Jewish contributors.

What complicates the picture is that in both cases the most hard-line pro-Israel group in the U.S., AIPAC, has taken the opposite position on mentioned above. AIPAC took these stands because they were in line with the positions of the government of Israel. Rabin’s government supported the nomination of Strobe Talbott and did not strenuously object to the UN Resolution as a necessary trade-off in the move toward peace.

AIPAC’s Board of Directors, as previously reported in this column, are deeply divided between traditional Washington professionals and liberals on the one side, and right-wing big-money contributors on the other. At their recent convention the AIPAC Board split on the question of U.S. support for the UN vote. Rabin’s and Clinton’s interventions were sufficient to win the group’s support for the U.S. stance. But when AIPAC President Steve Grossman, a pro-Labor liberal, announced the organizations’ decision to support the U.S. stance, he was heavily booed by the membership in attendance.

Another more recent example of the ZOA’s counter-peace strategy was in evidence in the past few weeks when a group of Congressmen, at the urging of Klein, announced the formation of a Peace Accords Monitoring Group (PAM). The purpose of PAM, according to a press release issued by its chairman, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), will be to:

“focus on assuring that the PLO lives up to its commitments, particularly in light of the fact that the United States plans to channel $500 million in aid to the West Bank and Gaza over the next five years. Members of the PAM Group will work in Congress and through the media to call attention to both PLO violations and compliance in regard to commitments made to Israel by Yasir `Arafat.

”`Aid from the United States must not be used to build the foundation of a terrorist haven. The PLO leadership has to understand this from the outset and take specific steps to prove their deeds will match their words,’ Engel said.”

The State Department is outraged at this effort to meddle in the peace process, as are leaders in the Labor government. But the ZOA, with its big-money supporters and its ability to play into the fears of many in the Jewish community, have now secured 15 members of Congress (with more expected to join) to become members of PAM.

At a recent closed-door meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich, criticized such efforts which, he held, destroy the unity and discipline of the Jewish community and which meddle in the affairs of the Israeli government.

Klein did not attend the meeting. Nor would it have made a difference if he had attended since, as several Jewish commentators noted, it is precisely the intention of the ZOA to destroy the unity of the Jewish community (if that means unity in support of the peace process) and to meddle in the affairs of the Labor-led government of Israel.

At this point, several observations can be made:

AIPAC is no longer the sole pro-Israel voice in Washington. Many members of Congress would, in the past, only act on a resolution if AIPAC gave them the signal to do so. But now that AIPAC has at least come out on the record in support of the peace process, other groups like the ZOA, which reflect the fears of some in the American Jewish community and have the ability to direct organized money in the political process, have attained the ability to get members of Congress to do their bidding. This attack from the right has, in turn, weakened AIPAC’s influence and forces the lobby to be even more cautious in its support for the peace process.

So, for the foreseeable future, it can be expected that Congress and pro-Israel forces in Washington will continue to make life difficult for the PLO and the peace process. In doing so, they will not only be running afoul of the wishes of the State Department, but even the wishes of the government of Israel.

Organized Jewish dissent against the policies of the government of Israel is not an entirely new phenomenon. During the period when Likud led the government of Israel, Americans for Peace Now regularly opposed the settlement policy (even to the point of supporting George Bush’s decision to withhold the loan guarantees in 1991). But opposition from the left was never as strong as this new opposition from the right and the growing movement of Jewish opponents to the Labor government present a real problem to supporters of peace.

Many in the Jewish community place blame for this on the Labor Party itself. They note how effective Likud was during the past 12 years in courting the American Jewish leadership and how unconcerned Labor seems to be making an effort to win them back.

So while Jewish dissent against the government of Israel is not new, it is novel that the organized dissent is so powerful and influential (and monied). This has inhibited some Jewish groups from being more outspoken in support of peace.

While the American Jewish Committee recently visited the Palestine Information Office in Washington and Americans for Peace Now recently sponsored a press conference with the National Association of Arab Americans, the President of Americans for Peace Now recently noted, “While several American Jewish groups have a general stance supporting the peace process, they have not put their resources behind that stance like they have done with other issues, like foreign aid and arms sales.”

***

While Arab Americans are struggling with the issues of peace and how to respond to the new circumstances created by the peace process, it is important to see that the same debate is also taking place within the Jewish community. Playing on old fears and muttering old slogans is always easier to do than creating new realities. In politics, fear is a more effective organizing force than hope.

What is clear, however, is that for peace to work, a constituency for peace must develop. In its absence and in the absence of an aggressive campaign by leaders who support peace, those who seek to take advantage of old fears will find an open playing field on which to play, and on which they will win support.

This is the challenge facing not only Arab Americans but also Jewish Americans. Since the power of the Jewish community is at this point greater than ours and since, correspondingly, so is their ability to disrupt or even stymie the peace process, their responsibility to support it is that much greater as well.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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