A few weeks ago, the Israeli government tried to stage an impressive show of persuasion in the United States. Former generals and senior intelligence operatives were recruited by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to be members of a delegation whose mission was to explain to the Jewish-American community the government's policy and vision with respect to its expected second agreement with the Palestinians. But the government's efforts failed. Several luminaries refused to be delegates. Those who did participate were humiliated when several Jewish communities and synagogues declined to receive them.
The setback did not deter the Israeli Cabinet from pursuing peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Last Thursday, in the presence of President Bill Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of and King Hussein of Jordan, Israeli and Palestinian delegations, led by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, signed their second deal. Known as "Oslo B," the new agreement, among other things, extends the PLO's authority from Gaza and Jericho to most of the West Bank.
But the failed mission of persuasion highlights the already well-established dispute between the elected government of Israel and some sectors within American Jewry.
The seeds of the rift were sowed when the Rabin government and Arafat's PLO secretly negotiated what became known as the Declaration of Principles, which was signed Sept. 13, 1993. For a majority of Israelis, the historic agreement signaled the beginning of the end of nearly a century of hostility between the Zionist movement and Palestinians. But for many American Jews and the Israeli right wing, it was a recipe for the self-destruction of the Jewish state. The two factions soon forged a strong alliance in opposition to the Israeli government's peace plans.
This opposition is led by three Israelis: Col. Yigal Carmon, a former adviser on counterterrorism; Yossi Ben-Aharon, a former director-general in the prime minister's office, and Yoram Ettinger, a former diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Washington. All three are known for their allegiance to the Likud Party and to Yitzhak Shamir, the former prime minister and Likud leader. "The two agreements and, above all, the whole peace process," says Carmon, will "lead the Israelis and Palestinians to an inevitable confrontation and eventually will bring on a catastrophe on the entire region." This sentiment is music to the ears of many American Jews who have found it difficult to come to terms with the new reality in the Middle East.
True, as a recent poll conducted by the Jewish American Committee shows, a majority of the 5 million American Jews, nearly 68%, support the peace process and the Israeli government. But it is a silent majority of mostly Conservative and Reform congregations, who have gradually shifted their focus from Israel to domestic issues like Jewish education, Jewish identity and Jewish continuity. The minority of mainly small Orthodox congregations--about 8% of American Jewry--retains a deep interest and commitment to Israeli questions.
Thousands of Orthodox families have children in the 120 Jewish settlements in the West Bank. These settlements, which might be evacuated in the next stages of peace, produce the strongest anti-government sentiments. No wonder the minority has proved not only vociferous in their rejection of the peace agreement but also effective politically. Led by the relatively unknown Morton A. Klein, the leader of Zionists of America, a small and, until recently, obscure organization, and the Orthodox Rabbi Fabian Shuynfield, they have become a real nuisance to the Israeli government.
Their tactics are simple: to erode the peace process and, when opportunity arises, sabotage it. Occasionally, using their "old boy" networks and contacts, Carmon, Ben-Aharon and Ettinger travel to Capitol Hill to meet, brief and talk to representatives, senators and their staffs. At the same time, the trio supplies their Jewish-American counterparts with ammunition in the form of video tapes of Arafat speeches, in which he hints of jihad, or holy war, against Israel. The tapes foster the impression that the PLO chairman remains a terrorist.
Equipped with information and materials provided by the Israeli rejectionists, Orthodox and right-wing American Jews go farther. They not only lobby against the declaration and "Oslo B" but also against any peace agreement with Syria that may result in Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
The election, in 1994, of a Republican majority in Congress has made the mission of the Israeli-diaspora alliance of rejectionists easier. In theory, an American Jew chairing one of the most powerful committees in Congress should be perceived by an Israeli government as the fulfillment of its wildest dreams. But Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has become a nightmare to Rabin's government. To the dismay of both the Israeli government and the Clinton Administration, the New York Republican, whose district has a substantial Jewish Orthodox electorate, has joined forces with his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), in opposition to the Middle East peace process. Their weapon: delay.
Gilman and Helms are trying to attach as many strings as possible to the Administration's attempt to provide financial aid to the Palestinian authority. After the first Israeli-PLO agreement, and with the blessing of the Rabin government, Clinton promised to grant the Palestinian authority $500 million over five years. Arafat desperately needs the money to improve infrastructure and his people's standard of living. Without the assistance, many Palestinians will not notice the difference between Israeli occupation and Palestinian self-rule and may switch loyalties to Muslim fundamentalists.
Only two weeks ago, Gilman convened his committee for a hearing at which Arafat video tapes, provided by Carmon and his associates, were the star witness. Gilman and Helms claim the Administration can release the money only if their eight demands are met by the Palestinian authority. Among them: the abolition of the PLO Covenant clauses calling for the destruction of Israel; the extradition to Israel of terrorists living in areas controlled by the Palestinian authority, and the introduction of laws that will dismantle paramilitary groups like the military wing of Hamas.
Although the suggested conditions appear reasonable, they are intended to sabotage Israeli-PLO peace efforts and weaken the Clinton presidency. Luckily enough for Rabin, Arafat, Mubarak, Hussein and the other leaders in the region who support peace, especially those in Morocco, the United Gulf Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Gilman's and Helms' initiatives do not enjoy support. Yet, given its energy and inventiveness, the alliance of right-wing Israelis, Jewish extremists and American conservatives will continue to threaten peace promoters. The rejectionists already have one achievement: They have externalized Israel's domestic battles and exported them to the United States.*