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Jewish Leaders Avoid Comment on Peace Talks

Times Staff Writer

Jewish leaders from around the world issued a general statement of support for Israel on Wednesday but skirted the increasingly contentious issue of the shape of future Middle East peace talks.

The final proclamation, the fruit of a three-day solidarity conference here attended by about 1,500 delegates, kept to tried and true themes.

It backed “Israel’s deep yearning in its 40-year quest for a just and lasting peace” and said: “We are proud of Israel’s adherence to its principles of democracy, justice and freedom . . . . We support the democratically elected government of national unity in its efforts to achieve peace and security with its neighbors.”

The only hint that Jews are deeply divided over the Arab uprising and how to settle it came in the phrase, “our love of Israel . . . transcends the diversity of our views.”

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The document made no mention of the uprising, which has taken hundreds of lives since it began more than 15 months ago.

“There has been a certain avoidance of controversial issues that becomes tiresome after a while,” remarked Sten Lukin, publisher of the Boston Jewish Times.

Israel’s government is debating its own plans to end the revolt but is split over whether to talk to Palestinians; if so, which Palestinians they should be, and whether they should be offered land occupied by Israel in return for peace.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and nearly all of his Cabinet reject participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in any talks, a possibility raised both by the Bush Administration and an Israeli intelligence report leaked to the Israeli press earlier this week.

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On Wednesday, aides to Shamir tried to put their interpretation on the contents of the intelligence report, which fixed on the PLO as the sole viable partner for peace talks.

Labeled as ‘Lies’

On Tuesday, Shamir called published accounts of it “lies.” On Wednesday, his aides backed off and said Shamir had not meant what he said. They explained that Shamir had been trying to say the report was an analysis, not a recommendation.

Yosef Ben-Aharon, his top assistant, asserted that Shamir “did not know of a report as it was published in the media. (The articles) suggested all sorts of things that have no connection to reality.”

Ben-Aharon described the intelligence report as “a picture of what course the violence in the territories has taken, to what extent it is directed by the PLO and to what extent there is a chance of reducing this violence by involving the PLO in one way or another.”

Amid the hubbub, the Israeli Foreign Ministry began to divulge tentative ideas for a peace plan.

The leading plan under consideration would include holding elections in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip so Arab residents could choose their own representatives to peace talks, a Foreign Ministry official said. Such a plan was outlined earlier this year by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and was billed as a way of sidestepping the PLO leadership. The PLO, based in Tunisia, is supported by a large segment of the Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza.

Rabin, who belongs to the more dovish Labor Party partner in Shamir’s coalition government, has admitted that PLO supporters might be elected in a vote but that Israel should be prepared to swallow the result to get talks going.

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Some members of Shamir’s Likud Party, the dominant group in the government, also have begun to hint at such an outcome.

“I’m convinced that the people elected (by Palestinians) will derive their authority from their voters, and not from somebody in Tunis,” Likud member Roni Milo said on government radio.

Then he added, “It’s possible that in their hearts, they feel closeness or sympathy for one or another group outside the territories.”

The controversy over the intelligence report overshadowed the solidarity conference, in part because the delegates had decided to hold the conference without controversy. The final statement reflected the desire of many to keep the issue of the uprising and talks with the PLO at arms length.

Israeli observers saw possible gains for Shamir in the lack of controversy.

“The prime minister came away with some sort of support,” said Shlomo Avineri, a former Foreign Ministry official. “Not an endorsement, but some support.”

There is some suspicion among government critics here that Shamir will try to translate the general support he received at the conference into specific support for his policies when he reaches Washington. In a pre-conference interview with the Jerusalem Post, Shamir said that once he makes his decision on how to proceed on peace, Jewish leaders abroad should “restrain” themselves.

Jewish-American opponents of Shamir expressed alarm that the conference, to which many of them were not invited, might be viewed as an expression of unanimity among American Jews.

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“The people who went played into Shamir’s hands,” said Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, who was not invited and did not attend. “It was a historical moment to speak the truth and say that Israel’s policies are doing great damage to the Jewish people.”


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