Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) national president Morton Klein is not known for his optimism in the face of the Middle East conflict. Nor does he mince words when being critical of the "peace process," or of the response on the part of many of his fellow Jewish activists to violations on the part of the Palestinians.
Indeed, says Klein, here earlier this month to attend the annual mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, "One of the most frustrating things about the American-Jewish community and Israel is their not insisting strongly enough that the Palestinian Authority stop educating its society to hatred and violence against Jews, and start arresting terrorists, rather than constantly demanding their release."
But, Klein asserts, he has seen some shift over the past year in the way his colleagues - who, he claims, "overwhelmingly supported Operation Cast Lead" - have begun to view the situation on the ground.
In fact, he says, pointing to a photocopy of an emblem on which the the entire State of Israel is covered in a keffiyeh, with Yasser Arafat in the center and a Kalashnikov rifle on the side, "Some of them have been talking about this seal which President Mahmoud Abbas put out to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the so-called moderate Fatah."
According to Klein, who has headed the ZOA for 15 years and counting, this kind of "rude awakening" among a growing number of his peers is relatively recent.
Klein, who lives in a suburb of Philadelphia but pays regular visits to the country he believes is the only one where a Jew can be fully fulfilled, attributes the altered attitude to a "realization that there's no partner for peace."
This seems to do little to assuage Klein's angst, however. For one thing, he claims, the new US president is likely to apply even more pressure on Israel than his predecessor (about whom Klein didn't have so much positive to say, either). For another, the world continues to place the onus on Israel.
During an interview at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, the venue of the conference, Klein - who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany to Holocaust survivor parents - explains why his organization's critique of certain Israeli policies differs from that emanating from left-wing groups.
"Ours is the kind of criticism geared towards guaranteeing the country's security," he says.
Due to the current situation in the country - post-Operation Cast Lead and in the midst of coalition building - is there anything different about this year's Conference of Presidents?
The difference I've noticed is that many of my colleagues have less of a feeling that peace is imminent than in previous years. They have less of a belief that if we only give away more land and make more concessions, we can have peace. They are less inclined to believe that a Palestinian state will save Israel. They've lost confidence in the Palestinian-Arab leadership - obviously with regard to Hamas, but even as concerns Abbas. So, reality has struck, and even more so in the past 12 months.
In the past, when I expressed deep concerns about the seriousness of peace on the part of Arafat, the PA or Abbas, I was frequently criticized for being a warmonger and not willing to take any serious risk for peace. Now, more of the leadership understands that the problem is with the Arabs, not with the Israelis.
Here's another interesting difference: At these conferences, I ask many questions of the speakers. This year, several people told me how much more moderate my questions had become. But the truth is that my questions are the same. They only sound more moderate and less hostile to their ears, because they grasp the reality of the situation much more than they ever did before.
Do you think this indicates that the American-Jewish community is now seeing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as part of a wider war between radical Islam and the West as a whole?
It is true that most of the American-Jewish community thought in specific terms - that we've got to resolve the issues with the Palestinian Arabs, and then everything will be fine - and now they understand that this is an issue of the entire Arab-Islamic world's enmity towards Israel as a Jewish state and towards the West as a whole. And that it's a war against all non-Muslims, not only against Jews. This type of understanding was not there a few years ago.
According to the polls conducted a few weeks ago, only 31 percent of Americans support the establishment of a Palestinian state. This is the lowest number we've seen in years. And, according to polls from a few months ago, for the first time in years, less than half of American Jews support the establishment of a Palestinian state.
How do you explain, then, that a majority of American Jews voted for President Barack Obama?
One common assertion that I consider a myth is that Jews vote Israel. I don't think they do. As long as a Jew is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that a candidate is not hostile to Israel, that's enough. As long as a candidate expresses verbal support for Israel's security and right to exist, especially if he has Jewish advisers around him, that's enough. Jewish voters don't generally go into the specifics of what policies are good or bad for Israel.
Still, Jews are split on issues, aren't they? Are there no political camps formed among different Jewish organizations?
Of course, there's the clear left-wing camp - such as Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, the Jewish Labor Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Union for Reform Judaism.
The largest number of Jewish organizations in the Conference of Presidents are are somewhat left of center, but primarily are interested in supporting whatever the Israeli government wants and does. Among those are ADL, the American Jewish Committee and possibly AIPAC - though AIPAC, in spite of its claiming to support whatever the Israeli government wants, such as disengagement, never supported the settlements. Whenever asked about their position on that, they say, "We take no position."
In any case, I personally don't understand adopting a position of support for whatever the Israeli government wants and does. I consider that perplexing, at best.
Isn't that a form of loyalty?
I am loyal to the United States of America, but do I support most of the positions of George Bush or Bill Clinton? Of course not. I have my differences. I make them known in various ways. But I'm very loyal to the country.
Isn't expressing criticism of a government different when it is your own or that of others? And isn't expressing criticism of your own government different when you are at home or abroad? Should one be as free with such criticism when among enemies?
I, Morton Klein, and people who think like me, recognize the right and obligation of Israel to make the final decision on every issue. But I feel I have the right - and even the obligation, as a Jew who feels deeply about Israel - to make my opinion known. The Israeli people or government can reject it. But I have the right to express my concerns.
Do you feel that way about Americans for Peace Now, as well - that they have the same right to express their opinions about Israeli policy as you do?
Yes, but frankly, the positions we take are less likely to hurt Israel's security interests than the positions they take. If we say, as we did, that [the] Oslo [Accords] may well turn out to be a disaster, because of Israel's one-sided concessions and the Arabs' fulfillment of none of their written obligations, that is something that can protect Israel's security. When left-wing groups like Peace Now say, "Give everything away immediately and set up a Palestinian state" - one which could well turn out to be a terrorist state - that is something that could endanger Israel's security.
Peace Now members would argue that their positions actually ensure Israel's security, because without the establishment of a Palestinian state along the '67 borders, there will never be peace.
That argument would have relevance and credibility if Arafat and subsequently Abbas had fulfilled their obligations under all their written agreements. In other words, if we had seen them end the hatred and violence against Jews in their schools, in the media and in the mosques, and if we had seen them jailing terrorists, outlawing terrorist groups and confiscating illegal weapons - if they had really transformed their culture - an argument could be made for Israel's withdrawal to the '67 borders for the purpose of establishing a Palestinian state. But none of this has happened, which indicates that the Left has never really accepted Oslo or the road map. Though they say they have, it's a lie, because if they had, they would have demanded that it be adhered to by the Arabs as well. Instead, they only demand that Israel make concessions.
So much for the left and center. What about the right-wing organizations, such as ZOA?
We consider ourselves the rational center, because we've never taken the position that we would make no concessions, under any circumstances. If we believed that making some concessions would truly bring peace, most members of ZOA would say, "Let's consider it."
What other groups in the Conference of Presidents belong to your camp?
The National Council of Young Israel is a group that thinks along our lines. CAMERA usually does, as well, though they tend to limit themselves to media. And some of the Orthodox groups share our positions, though the Orthodox Union has been disappointing in its refusal to oppose the Gaza withdrawal, and in its not speaking out strongly enough against Abbas's outrageous statements and behavior. Then there are Amit and Emunah, who also share our positions for the most part.
You started out by saying that many American-Jewish leaders have come to the realization that the Palestinians are not reliable peace partners. Wouldn't you say, then, that the withdrawal from Gaza was a good thing from your perspective, since if it hadn't taken place, many of your colleagues would still be holding their previous views?
It's an interesting and valid question. It is true that the events following the withdrawal from Gaza had an effect. American Jews learned from it that maybe the Palestinian Arabs don't want peace after all. This is why ZOA's positions are no longer considered so out of the mainstream. But, interestingly, the same thing does not apply to non-Jews. Most non-Jews and most non-Jewish world leaders - other than the evangelical Christians, whose views have only been validated by the events following disengagement - have not come around to seeing this region in a different light.
But you have to understand the root of all these peace plans and of disengagement. Politicians have to provide solutions, otherwise they have no role. It's like going to a doctor with an ailment, or going to a lawyer with a legal problem. If all they did was say there was no cure or solution, they'd be out of business.
Speaking of cures for ailments, in his June 24, 2002 speech, Bush said he would solve the problem by demanding that the Palestinians reform their society. What's wrong with that?
But Bush ignored the fundamental principle he himself laid out in that speech, which was that there would be no peace until the Palestinians ended incitement to hatred and violence in all aspects of their culture. Indeed, neither Bush nor virtually any other leader ever makes an issue out of this.
And why don't they? Because they know that the Palestinians are not going to implement reforms, and they're afraid that if they make that a primary issue, the process ends.
Apropos "the process," as the American administration begins to get its bearings, and as Binyamin Netanyahu tries to form a government, what is the talk on Capitol Hill about what Obama would like to see happen here?
I can go back to a statement that Obama made in Cleveland to Jewish groups. Trying to ensure them of how committed he is to Israel, he said: "You don't have to be a supporter of Likud to be pro-Israel. I'm a supporter of more liberal policies."
That's very worrisome, because it indicates to me that there is going to be a clash.
Still, both Obama and Netanyahu have said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Is it possible that America and Israel will end up cooperating on a military action?
Bush also said that America would never allow a nuclear Iran. But I understand that when Israel wanted to take some serious action this year, he would not grant permission for the airspace.
Do you know this for a fact?
No, not for a fact, but many trustworthy people have told me so.
I would hope America understands that stopping Iran is in America's interest, without regard to Israel. The same goes for Europe.
Does the American-Jewish community support military action against Iran?
There is almost universal consensus among American Jews that anything - including military action - should be done to stop Iran's nuclear program.
Finally, last year, the ZOA opened up an Israel office. As the head of an organization that lives and breathes Israel, why haven't you come on aliya?
It's a very fair question. The ultimate goal of any Zionist is to move here and participate in this endeavor. I respect anyone who does it. It's not an easy thing to do, especially for people my age who have family ties and friends. And now, for the 15 years that I've been president of the ZOA, many people tell me, rightly or wrongly, that I can really do more as one human being fighting for Israel from America - with our lobbying in Washington, our campus work, our work in the courts and with my writings in America and throughout the world - than I could if I were in Israel. For one thing, if I came here, I wouldn't be president of ZOA any more. But, clearly, the ultimate goal of any Zionist must be to live here. Christian Zionists, who love Israel and support its survival and prosperity, don't have to live here for fulfillment. But you're not a 100% fulfilled Jewish Zionist unless you live in the Jewish state.