Nov. 26, 2004
Don't just sit there

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

With Yasser Arafat dead and buried, Palestinian elections just weeks away, President George W. Bush reshaping his Cabinet, and Gaza disengagement on the horizon, many American Jews are hoping for a new dawn in the Middle East.

And, as always, they're refusing to sit idly by and wait to be disappointed.

As certain as is a new round of diplomatic back-and-forth between world leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front, American Jews are making sure to let them know what they think-at least, those who have the means to do so.

The clamor already has begun. It takes the form of full-page advertisements in Jewish newspapers and the New York Times, open letters to members of government in Israel and the United States, a flood of press releases to journalists, visits to top diplomats by influential (and wealthy) American Jews, and, of course, "missions" to Israel.

This week, for example, about 75 people organized by the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum sent a letter to Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state nominee, urging her to implement the president's vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It is critical, I think, that the American public, as well as members of the Bush Administration and Congress, know that many prominent American Jewish leaders and the 'silent majority' of American Jews support this policy, that the vocal, hard-line Jews do not represent the views of American Jews," said Martin Irom, spokesman for the group.

Last week, the Israel Policy Forum arranged for a NATO commander to visit a top Manhattan law firm to talk to Jews there about how NATO troops could force a peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

There's been movement on the other end of the political spectrum, too.

"We think it's a crucial time to alert people that nothing of significance has changed," said the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein. The ZOA sent letters to Bush, Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell over the last few days and is now organizing a letter signed by members of Congress urging the president not to compromise the war on terrorism by giving in to Palestinian demands. Full-page ads in Jewish newspapers are to follow, he said.

"We decided to do this after Arafat died and we were really shocked that the world sent top representatives to Arafat's funeral," Klein said. "We realized we'd really better say something. We saw the world thinking that [PLO chairman Mahmoud] Abbas is some sort of new peace man when Abbas in fact has been a terrorist all his life."

Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said groups like his see their role as providing political leaders with encouragement and new ideas.

"We're trying to encourage the Bush administration to continue down the path that the president set out in his appearance with [British] Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which he renewed his commitment to a negotiating track that will lead to a two-state solution," Roth said. "We're also encouraging Prime Minister Sharon to carry out some of the steps that he's willing to take to allow Palestinian elections to occur."

Public statements notwithstanding, it's unclear how much impact these efforts actually have. Letter-writing campaigns don't dictate national policy, and often the only tangible result of placing a full-page ad in the New York Times is to drain the sponsor's bank account of about $90,000.

"Our successes in Israel as well as in the United States clearly demonstrate that we are a North American organization with a global impact," the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, said ahead of the group's conference in Jerusalem this weekend. "Through our Israel Center in Jerusalem, with its multiplicity of programs; through our advocacy sessions," he added, "we are an Israeli organization every bit as much as we are an American organization."

But just because Sharon agreed to address the group-he was the headliner of the conference's opening session Wednesday night-doesn't mean he's listening to it. The same goes for the gamut of American Jewish groups, including those whose leaders routinely are dispatched to knock on the doors of the prime minister and U.S. Cabinet officers.

And with the U.S. election over and Israel secure in the knowledge that it will have American Jewish support-more or less-for pretty much whatever it does, there appears no compelling reason for that to change.