Posted on June 26, 1995 in Washington Watch

The U.S. Congress and the 1996 U.S. presidential elections have become advance battlegrounds for the war between Israel’s Labor and Likud parties (and the 1996 elections in Israel).

In an effort to undercut the peace process and to embarrass the Labor government, Likud has been actively organizing in the U.S. for the past year and a half. There are four Likud leaders who are actively working in Washington, visiting Congressional offices, mobilizing Jewish and conservative support, and meeting with the U.S. press.

The highest-ranking member of the group is Zalman Shoval, a businessman and former Israeli Ambassador to Washington. The remaining members of the Likud team (referred to by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as “the gang of three”) are Yossi Ben-Aharon, Yoram Ettinger and Yigal Carmon – all former officials in the Shamir government.

The Likud team has been successful in building a strong base of support for their views in segments of the American Jewish community, and among Republicans both on Capitol Hill and in conservative think tanks.

Their efforts have brought about several critical developments in the U.S. debate over Middle East policy.

Most significantly, there is no longer a single pro-Israel voice in Washington. For the first time in the post-’67 era, there is open political warfare over Middle East issues, but the sides are not Arab and Jewish. They are Labor and Likud.

Two other major developments have made this possible.

The peace process has provoked a deep and public debate within the American Jewish community. The facade of unity which the organized Jewish community had maintained for decades was ruptured with the election of a Labor government in Israel in 1992. Labor’s signing of an agreement with the PLO in 1993 made this rupture wider and the public debate more intense.

Another issue compounding this fracturing of the Jewish community’s public voice is the political emergence of the more conservative orthodox Jewish community in New York City. For decades they ceded the role of public political leadership to the more secular and liberal Jewish organizations. But within the past decade the orthodox have become more vocal and policy-oriented. In New York politics they have emerged as a strong component of the Republican coalition which elected a Republican Mayor and Governor and as strong supporters of the Republican Senator from New York, Alfonse D’Amato.

On the surface, this rupture within the Jewish community has been between liberals and conservatives: Democrats versus Republicans, Labor versus Likud. On another level it has a great deal to do with the psychology of peace. Peace after decades of conflict requires the ability to transcend old fears and myths. It requires what has been called “the peace of the brave” – that is, leadership that will project new challenges and a new vision of hope for the future.

Absent such leadership and the will to seek and follow a new vision, most people find odd comfort in old fears and myths. Clearly, there are those in the American Jewish community who find it useful and, at times, easy to organize opponents of peace by returning to the anti-Arab rhetoric of the past. The same can be said, of course, of the Arabs as well.

The Likud activists and their supporters in the U.S., schooled as they were for over a decade in the politics and rhetoric of Begin and Shamir, have been able to organize a strong base of support for their anti-peace program with anti-Arab propaganda. Such efforts have been made easier by the Republican Congressional sweep in 1994 and the highly-charged political atmosphere leading up the 1996 presidential elections.

As I have often noted, the new Republican Party of Newt Gingrich is not cut from the same mold as the brand of Republican politics practiced by George Bush and James Baker. The new coalition of neo-conservatives and Christian right-wingers has much in common with the new-Cold War outlook of the Likud hawks. And the Republican victory of 1994 provided and receptive audience for the initiatives of the “gang of three.”

The three major efforts they have launched have a single intent: to sabotage the prospects for peace. By forcing complex requirements on the PLO in the name of “compliance with the Declaration of Principles” in order for the Palestinians to continue receiving U.S. assistance, they have opened the door to anti-Palestinian debate in the Congress. By attempting to force Congressional debate on the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, they raise the most delicate issue of the peace process in the most indelicate of ways and threaten to destroy the U.S. role in the process. And by prematurely raising the possible threat to any U.S. troops which might be stationed on the Golan Heights as a part of an Israeli-Syrian agreement, they seek to deliberately remove from Rabin’s hand one measure he may need to win public support in Israel for a withdrawal from Syrian territory.

The hand of the Likud has been present in each of these initiatives. And in each instance Republican Congressional leaders and/or Republican presidential hopefuls have adopted the Likud position as a way to challenge the Democratic Administration’s commitment to Israel, although they always disingenuously couch their initiatives in terms of support for peace.

For a time it appeared that the efforts of this unholy alliance of U.S. and Israeli right-wingers was succeeding. They have already done serious damage to the peace process. AIPAC, the major pro-Israel lobby in Washington, internally divided by its own Labor-Likud split, is lukewarm in its support for the peace process, even as understood by the Israeli government. Instead of agreeing to an outright rescission of anti-PLO legislation they had pushed in the past decade, they deferred to their own right wing in support of the humiliating conditions for “compliance” contained in the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act (MEPFA).

While AIPAC did vigorously criticize the role of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) – the most powerful of the new groups espousing the Likud position in Washington, they allowed their own positions and commitment to peace to be compromised in order not to alienate their right wing supporters.

AIPAC’s decision to endorse the Dole legislation on Jerusalem is a case in point. Breaking with both the Clinton Administration and the government of Israel, AIPAC Made the decision to support the bill for internal political reasons and out of fear of being outflanked by the ZOA on this most emotional issue for American Jews.

Yet, after ceding so much ground to the right wing without a serious fight over the past eighteen months, a number of events in the past week suggest that the battle has finally been joined.

Last week a large group of orthodox rabbis from New York made their rounds on Capitol Hill, bringing with them thousands of letters from constituents to Senator’s offices arguing their case that peace with the Arabs is impossible and calling for an end to U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians.

But also last week the Israel Policy Forum, a progressive organization, sponsored a conference on the Hill with a number of Congressmen and, via satellite, Yitzhak Rabin, who made the opposite case.

Rabin charged that the D’Amato legislation, which would stop U.S. aid to the Palestinians, was based on a “campaign of disinformation” waged by Likud activists in the U.S. (Indeed, one Jewish leader told me that some of the text of D’Amato’s bill came from a fax from Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem.) Rabin charged that anyone who supported this effort would be “stopping the peace process.”

On another front, while ZOA President Mort Klein accused the State Department and the CIA of “whitewashing” the PLO’s record and lying to the Congress, other Jewish groups have for the first time begun to vigorously oppose such demagoguery. The National Jewish Democratic Coalition, American Friends of Peace Now and the editorials of several prominent American Jewish newspapers made the point that support for the Palestinians is essential to the peace process. Even AIPAC strengthened its verbal support for the PLO and issued a sharp criticism of the D’Amato legislation.

It now appears certain that D’Amato’s bill will not move forward. A 45 day extension of U.S. assistance to the PLO will occur, and will be followed by a reinstatement of the old MEPFA – with some unfortunate toughening of the language but with enough loopholes to insure that the PLO will not be unfairly punished.

On Jerusalem, the battle lines have also been drawn. On June 20th, Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent a very strongly-worded letter to the Senate leadership making clear the Administration’s opposition to Senator Dole’s legislation. In his letter, which was cleared by the President, Christopher stated that if the Dole bill passed, he “will recommend that the President veto” it. At the same time, the Secretary of State called in the new Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and informed that group of his intentions.

On the very next day, the Conference of Presidents met and withheld its endorsement of the Dole bill – making it clear that since there was no consensus in the American Jewish community in support of the legislation, they therefore could not support it.

Again, Americans for Peace Now provided strong leadership in opposition to the anti-peace Dole legislation, as did the NJCRAC (a major national grass-roots Jewish community coalition). One NJCRAC officer, speaking about AIPAC’s role in support of the Dole bill, was quoted after the meeting saying that any group that lobbied on behalf of the Dole bill is operating outside the consensus of the American Jewish community.

And so it is now clear that the Likud-Labor battle is fully engaged and is being waged not only in Israel but in Washington as well. And not only on Capitol Hill.

With Republican presidential hopefuls like Bob Dole, Phil Graham and Pete Wilson advocating Likud positions, the issues of the peace process will undoubtedly continue to factor into the 1996 presidential race as well.

Far from being passive observers in this fray, Arab Americans have been actively engaged. The struggle that we face is not one of taking sides in this internal Jewish community debate, but in interjecting an Arab dimension in the national political discussion. Peace and the struggle for a just and comprehensive settlement is not just a Jewish community concern, obviously, just as an Israeli-centered peace is not a just peace.

The Arab and Arab American challenge is to broaden the terms of debate and to warn of the dangers to the peace process inherent in allowing the path of this process to be defined solely in terms of the of Labor and Likud battle.

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