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Pro-Oslo groups need backing of U.S. Jews


I was living in Israel in 1993 when Israelis and Palestinians alike, glued to the TV, watched Yithzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat as they shook hands on the White House lawn. It was a moment full of promise and it managed to infuse hope into a region where people had become accustomed to strife and violence.

Sept. 5 marked the anniversary of the Oslo accords, but the optimism it inspired has given way to despair. Recently Arafat was back in the White House, this time meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu. While the 1993 meeting seemed like a genuine fork in the road, a chance to choose the path of peace, this time the two men’s forced amicability and grudging agreements seemed merely a detour on the way to further bloodshed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has rejected the accords that implicitly recognize the Palestinians’ rights to self-determination, a notion that is tantamount to statehood. He believes that giving the Palestinians political freedom is a compromise Israel should not make: Autonomy over civil institutions like education and health is OK; a state is inconceivable. His intransigent policies have all but buried Oslo, and, with it, the promise.

While it is up to the Israeli public to stand up to Netanyahu’s dangerous decisions, which have led to the destruction of the peace process, the Jewish lobby in the United States must also be held accountable for the degeneration in Israeli-Arab relations. It, too, is culpable insofar as its leaders are supporting Netanyahu while persistently ignoring the opinion of constituents, namely the Jewish population in the United States.

Allow me to explain. Within the American-Jewish community, Netanyahu’s position concerning the peace process is unpopular. According to Tom Smerling of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that conducts regular polls within the Jewish community, 70 percent of Jews “express strong support for the Oslo accords” and want the Clinton administration to take a proactive stance to move it forward. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of Jews -- 80 percent -- “support the Clinton administration’s current efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”

Despite the evidence that American Jews are pro-Oslo, several Jewish lobbying groups from the center to the extreme right have endorsed Netanyahu’s approach. Most prominent of these is AIPAC -- American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- which wields great power on Capitol Hill. In a January issue of the Near East Report, AIPAC published a long, detailed article titled “The Year in Review.” Concealed in seemingly impartial language, the editors fully appropriate Netanyahu’s line, while rationalizing the decision to support all of the prime minister’s policies by claiming that “Netanyahu’s Likud [is] undergoing an extraordinary ideological transformation.” AIPAC’s claim is deceitful. Most Israeli analysts, on both sides of the debate, would probably agree that Netanyahu has not altered his beliefs since he gained power and has, in fact, succeeded in accomplishing his long-standing objective -- to undermine Oslo.

Along similar lines, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations -- which is an umbrella organization for many Jewish groups -- does not embrace a pro-Oslo stand. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the conference, claims that the organization is in favor of peace but that it is by no means committed to the Oslo agreements. Hoenlein prefers to speak of peace only in abstract terms, forgetting that anyone can be an advocate for abstract peace -- even the fascist Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Both AIPAC and the conference have urged President Clinton not to pressure Netanyahu, knowing full well that the latter has abandoned the Oslo accords. How is it, I ask myself, that in a country whose very existence is grounded on the revolutionary slogan “no taxation without representation,” the majority of Jews continue donating money to lobbying groups that do not represent their interests?

Jews who believe that Israel’s future lies in a peaceful resolution should support groups that actually represent their views, like Friends of Meretz, Peace Now or the new lobbying group Beit Shalom. These groups are Zionists and believe in a Jewish homeland, yet unlike AIPAC, they have joined the Israeli peace camp, which supports the establishment of a Palestinian state.

These groups realize that only a two-state solution will bring peace to the region, because only a two-state solution is just.

Neve Gordon has for the past five years been a member of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. A native Israeli, he and his family recently returned to Israel.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998