October 7, 1999
Managing the Bitter Debate Ahead
Next month, Prime Minister Ehud Barak will travel to Atlanta for the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the central philanthropic and service organization in the American Jewish world.
Israeli officials say that one goal will be to renew his appeal for Jewish unity as Israel moves quickly to negotiate a deal that will create some kind of Palestinian state.
Barak believes what many Jewish leaders here believe: Jewish disunity -- the bitter battles between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, left and right, peace process supporters and those who see "land for peace" as just another name for treason -- is as much a threat as Arab armies.
Barak wants political support for his approach to negotiating with the Palestinians and Syria, and by and large he will get it from American Jews.
But that will not quell the voices of dissent. To the contrary: the impending start of final status talks will add to the intensity of a debate that has already created deep fissures in the Jewish world.
The challenge for community leaders will be to manage that debate in ways that cause the least damage to the tattered fabric of Jewish unity -- and that do not add to the steady erosion of interest in Israel among American Jews. And to do that they will need help from an Israeli government that, so far, has done little to build support for its peace policies here.
The negotiations that Israeli officials hope will be wrapped up in a year will open a host of issues deemed too explosive to be dealt with in earlier rounds, including Palestinian statehood, settlements and refugees, an issue that evokes images of returnees filling the discontented Palestinian ranks in the West Bank and Gaza.
And Jerusalem. Ehud Barak is said to be open to a variety of solutions that might give the Palestinians at least a semblance of their "al Quds," but Jews on the right -- and many not so far to the right -- will have a hard time swallowing anything that doesn't sound like the formulation that has become a key dogma of the pro-Israel faith: Jerusalem as the indivisible, eternal capital of Israel.
Moreover, the Palestinians will bring into the negotiations maximalist positions that will incense Jews and seem to confirm the most dire predictions of anti-peace process crusaders.
Already, there are indications of the challenge Barak and Jewish leaders face.
Numerically small but highly motivated groups on the right are cranking out torrents of information designed to show that Israel's negotiating partners -- the Palestinians, potentially the Syrians, even the Jordanians -- are inherently unreliable and duplicitous.
Further out on the fringes, groups are anonymously distributing almost daily fliers to journalists and Washington decision makers branding Barak a traitor and demanding his ouster. The unsigned broadsides stop just short of calling for a coup, and the violent tone is reminiscent of the rhetoric that preceded the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
At the same time groups on the Left are restive, anxious to see the peace process advance at a speed the cautious Barak is unlikely to embrace. They're willing to give the new leader a chance, but how much of a chance is open to question.
The challenge for Barak and his ministers is this: how to build American Jewish support for the peace process in this increasingly overwrought environment. So far, there's little evidence that they are interested; the new government is doing even less than the Rabin-Peres regimes to prepare the American Jewish community for the wrenching decisions ahead.
Israeli governments from both left and right helped foster passionate attitudes in the U.S. about Jerusalem, settlements and Palestinian statehood that will be communal flashpoints when final status talks get underway. Now, they have to deal with those attitudes they helped create among America's Jews.
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