U.S. Jews Cautious as Parley Opens in Israel

Times Staff Writer

More than 1,000 Jewish leaders from around the world have come here to express support for Israel, although the numerous American participants are being cautious about just what policies they specifically back.

The gathering, known as the Prime Minister’s Conference of Jewish Solidarity With Israel, begins today. Already, a statement for the close of the conference has been drafted and then withdrawn when groups of Americans objected to its apparent support of a rigid stand by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir against pressure for peace talks, U.S. delegates said.

The conference coincides with increased calls for the Israeli government to come up with a peace initiative to lead to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and end the Arab uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Shamir to Speak Tuesday


Shamir, who is expected to address the conference Tuesday, is scheduled to travel to Washington within three weeks to deliver his outline for peace to the Bush Administration. The tone and substance of his support in this week’s solidarity conference is being watched closely here to see how much public relations benefit Shamir can round up before his trip.

Until now, Shamir has opposed talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization or the surrender of occupied land in return for peace--both of which have been tendered by the Bush Administration as possible avenues to a long-sought settlement.

Leading American participants in the solidarity conference are wary of giving the appearance of being used as a propaganda tool. They say they do not expect to be told what Shamir’s peace plan is, nor are they blindly giving approval to some future proposal.

Common Denominator


The Americans insist that they are here to demonstrate something that is not in doubt anyway: that the vast majority of American Jews support Israel’s basic security and economic well-being. Any attempt to enlist them in causes beyond this common denominator--for example, in such messy questions as maintaining Israel’s control over all the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip or Israel’s handling of the Arab uprising--is unwelcome, participants maintain.

“We are here to support the people of Israel and to show that American Jews and Israel agree on 95% of the issues at hand,” said Burton S. Levinson, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. “We are not here to settle on the other 5% that divides us.”

Thus, the conference is not expected to produce a firm statement on the issues of war and peace with the Palestinians or talks with the PLO. Participants also insist that this is not a “Conference of Solidarity With the Prime Minister.”

“People like myself are not here to endorse the prime minister,” Levinson said. “We are here to support the people of Israel.”

‘Blank Check’ for Shamir?

Added Wayne L. Feinstein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles: “There was concern about being seen as giving Shamir a blank check. Some American delegations made their worries known. Some of us came to make sure this is not the case.”

As the conference begins, polls in the United States are showing that American Jews are less and less comfortable with Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and in favor of some sort of homeland for the Palestinians.

Israeli officials have been upset by what they see as the acquiescence of most major American Jewish groups to a U.S. policy move toward including the PLO in future peace talks. In a speech given in New York last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens said that if Israel’s enemies perceive a weakening in support either from Washington or American Jewry, “a mortal danger will be lurking in the shadows.”


Delegates Ambivalent

Despite this dark analysis, conference delegates are ambivalent about openly entering Israel’s partisan debate over the Palestinian issue. Last year, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tried to enlist American Jews in his campaign to convene an international peace conference on the Middle East.

The effort badly split the influential American Jewish community, and Jewish leaders meeting here apparently want to avoid another fray--at least until after Shamir goes to Washington.

“We want to give the prime minister a chance to be heard,” said Seymour Reich, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I think that even some critics will withhold their comments until after he meets with Bush.”

Reich said he expects Shamir to bring some new ideas to Washington that will give “forward movement” to the peace process.

Even before participants began arriving, controversy developed over the conference. American Jews and Jews from other countries complained that the invitation list was stacked against those who strongly oppose Shamir’s policies, which up to now have steadfastly focused on keeping the occupied territories under Israeli control.