Israelis Try to Shore Up Support in L.A. for Peace Talks


Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, a decorated veteran of the Israeli army, was talking up his nation's peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to a small audience in the den of a Bel-Air home recently when he ran into a tricky area.

In response to a question about the 1996 presidential race, the general chuckled and said, "I don't like to get involved with American politics."

Nonetheless, American politics, and to a larger degree public opinion, is the reason he's here.

Orr and a team of top Israeli political and military figures are canvassing Los Angeles, Washington and other cities with large and influential Jewish populations to drum up support among lawmakers and the public as the peace talks reach a critical stage.

Orr has headed back for Israel, but a smattering of other top officials are expected to appear in Los Angeles after the upcoming High Holy Days, which begin Sunday evening. Proponents of the peace talks say about 10 retired generals and other Israeli luminaries will hit the lecture circuit in the next few months.

Amid concern that opposition to the talks is spreading among American Jews, particularly within Orthodox communities, supporters of the negotiations are placing advertisements in national publications, planning private lunches with visiting dignitaries and stepping up their presence on Capitol Hill.

Los Angeles is a natural stop on the Israeli officials' tour. Home to the second-largest Jewish community in the United States, not to mention one of the wealthiest, the region has become a well-trodden stumping ground for Israeli political figures seeking campaign contributions and grass-roots support.

Their efforts to shore up support, however, involve more than cheerleading. Proponents seek to persuade Congress to send $100 million to the Palestinian Authority--money that they say is crucial to keep the peace process alive.

If Congress, which votes on the issue later this year, perceives American Jews as divided over the progress of the peace talks, lawmakers might decide against authorizing the money. And that could bring negotiations crashing down, supporters of the talks say.

The payment is a small part of the $2.4 billion in aid pledged in 1993 by the United States and other Western nations to the Palestinians. But its withdrawal could be seen as a no-confidence vote in the Middle East peace talks by the United States.

A poll released this week by the American Jewish Committee, one of the nation's largest Jewish groups, shows that 68% of the Jewish population backs Israel's handling of peace talks with the Arabs, although 63% oppose further U.S. economic aid to the Palestinians. Two years ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands in the White House Rose Garden, 84% approved the peace talks.

Officials also have noted a disturbing loss of support among Orthodox Jews, 52% of whom supported the Rabin government at the start of the peace process. According to the poll, 64% now oppose the direction of the talks.

Even within synagogues of the more liberal Reform and Conservative denominations, there are increasing signs of disillusionment, particularly in the wake of recent terrorist attacks on Israelis.

"If Arafat needs money, let him get it from other sources," said Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple in West Los Angeles, a Reform congregation of 3,000 families, the largest in Los Angeles.

Echoing the concerns of other rabbis across the country, Zeldin said his congregation has become increasingly worried about Arafat's ability to curb terrorist attacks against Israelis.

"People are wondering, is it worth it?" said Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "I can't believe the Israeli government isn't feeling this as well. Otherwise, they wouldn't send people over here."

Other Los Angeles-area Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, point out that the majority of American Jews backs the peace process despite those doubts. Orr spoke to the Conservative congregation last weekend.

"These are people who yearn for peace so much, they realize this is an opportunity that should not be foregone," Schulweis said.

By dispatching retired military officials to address American Jewish audiences, Israeli leaders hope to counter specific concerns involving security and the integrity of Israel's borders. With the deadline for the first pact looming in Israel, proponents say the timing of their redoubled effort is critical to ensuring that peace talks continue this fall, let alone survive in the long term.

"Our concern is that the American administration and the American government continue to cooperate with Israel and see the peace process through," said Gadi Baltianski, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy.

Americans have great influence on Israel's future through lobbying in Washington and campaign contributions to Israeli political figures.

Irwin Field, president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, said many American Jews are resigned to supporting the talks.

"It may be the best plan available," Field said. "It may not be the best plan."

Waves of euphoria that followed the start of the peace process have tapered off somewhat in the United States and Israel, particularly among Jews who have increasingly called on Arafat to take a stronger stance against terrorism in the wake of a string of suicide bombings in Israel.

"There is a growing mistrust of Palestinian intentions," said David Harris, who helped oversee the American Jewish Committee poll.

Still, Israeli leaders and other supporters of the Rabin government's tactics are holding fast to the idea that the talks are Israel's best hope for lasting peace, despite widespread distaste for Arafat.

"To pray for peace is not enough," Orr said. "For peace, you should negotiate."

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