American Jewish leaders felt squeezed this week. They were caught between the Israeli government, which wants them to man the barricades against what is perceived to be a sweeping new American plan for breaking the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, and the Clinton administration, which is seeking an amber light to pursue its “bridging proposals” in the moribund negotiations.
The squeeze could become even more uncomfortable as Washington digests the results of the latest Mideast mission by special envoy Dennis Ross, who made progress but failed to close the wide gap over the long delayed West Bank redeployment.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conceded that Ross’ latest 911 mission had produced few tangible results. Israeli sources say Ross didn’t get as far as seriously negotiating the administration’s top
issue — the size of the delayed redeployment.
“We felt the Americans understood our concerns more than in the past,” Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told The Jewish Week. “But we need direct dialogue because [Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat won’t meet with us as long as he is expecting a U.S. initiative.”
Top Clinton administration officials have been weighing whether or not to go public with their plan, which reportedly calls for an Israeli withdrawal of 13.1 percent in three quick phases and a series of Palestinian commitments to combat terrorism.
Israel, which says security concerns prohibit more than a 10 percent pullout, has been trying to dissuade Washington from going public, believing that it will bear the burden of U.S. pressure.
The Palestinians appeared ready to accept the U.S. redeployment proposal, but refused to offer enough in the area of security compliance to satisfy the Netanyahu government.
State Department spokesman James Rubin stated the obvious on Monday when he said the peace talks were in “dire straits,” and spoke more openly about one of the options being considered in the wake of the Ross mission — an American disengagement from its mediation role.
“There are many options, and one option has always been to disengage,” he said. “If the two sides aren’t prepared to make the hard calls, the catalyst can only do so much.”
But Israeli officials say it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will walk away from the negotiations, particularly with Europe and Russia eager to fill the vacuum. “We’ve been put in a corner,” one Israeli official acknowledged, “and we’ve got to find a way out.”
For weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressed Jewish leaders here to resist the American proposals, which he claims are an attempt by Washington to dictate terms of an agreement to get the peace talks moving again. The Israeli leader’s efforts have produced mixed results, but they have created enough pressure to anger administration officials.
At the same time, the administration is imploring Jewish leaders for help with the Netanyahu government.
That was the underlying theme of a conference call last week between Albright and leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Albright expressed her deep frustration over the stalled talks, and asked the Jewish leaders for their support as the administration seeks to prod both sides back to the table.
“She wants maneuvering room, and she would like to see a kind of deliberate ambiguity from Jewish groups about the boundaries in terms of pressure,” said David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee. “She would like to see some greater elasticity from the Jewish community on the idea of what it means for Washington be a facilitator.”
That leaves American Jewish leaders caught between a rock in Washington and a hard place in Jerusalem, without a clear mandate from their own organizations’ members.
There is a consensus in the community that a strong American role is needed to rescue the peace talks, Harris said, but there’s a big problem “figuring out exactly where facilitation ends and pressure begins. For Jewish organizations, defining that fine line is the exercise du jour.”
Jewish leaders agree that unbalanced pressure and comprehensive plans hatched in Washington are inappropriate, but they don’t agree on what those terms mean.
Martin Raffel, associate executive vice-chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said that Jewish groups wouldn’t automatically oppose an administration move to go public with their January proposals.
“I don’t expect massive resistance to the administration strategy of sharing its ideas and its assessments,” he said. “The left and the right will object, but what will the middle do? They will look to see how it’s framed, what the context is. They will be very discerning about the words used. The community won’t make a knee-jerk reaction.”
Inappropriate pressure, he said, involves things like “the threat to withhold tangible support for Israel if it didn’t go along with American ideas. Even those who believe Israel would be well served by a 13 percent redeployment would see that as inappropriate.”
But others draw the line differently.
Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said that while the American Jewish community generally welcomes American intervention, “they are not prepared to agree that Israel should be coerced to accept [the U.S.] position. And coercion can take the form of a public expression of disappointment. That is a form of coercion.”
There’s nothing wrong with presenting American suggestions to Israel and Palestinian negotiators, he said.
“But if they do that and then go on national television and say, this is what we’ve offered and one of them doesn’t agree, that’s different.
Like most Jewish leaders, Baum warned against jumping to conclusions this week. “Everything depends on what the administration plans to do next, and whether it lives up to its repeated assurances not to try to impose a solution. By and large, there’s a feeling Washington has played a constructive role.”
But there is also widespread concern about the undertone of threat that has accompanied the bridging proposals, conveyed privately in January and widely leaked to the press.
Several Jewish leaders say the administration has been less than forthright about the proposals, reinforcing the perception that they want to go further in pushing Israel than many Jewish groups are willing to accept.
But many of these same leaders are also reluctant to go to war against an administration they see as the most Israel-friendly ever.