US Jewish groups mum ahead of summit

Few groups have stepped forward with opinions; official says deeper issue is one of skepticism.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [archive])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [archive])
A week ahead of the Annapolis peace meeting, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs went somewhere other Jewish organizations have feared to tread: it hailed America's efforts and welcomed its prospects for peace. "We commend the United States and President Bush for taking a proactive role on this matter," Steve Gutow, executive director for the JCPA, the public affairs arm for national Jewish organizations, said in the release. "The [JCPA] expresses its sincere hope that this gathering marks the beginning of a renewed process that leads to two states living side-by-side in security and peace." The statement highlighted an ideological divide among Jewish groups - as it was hailed on the Left, criticized on the Right - as well as the dearth of such statements from other mainstream Jewish organizations. Before the JCPA statement was issued on Monday, officials from many organizations said it was difficult to take a stand with so little known about the conference and its scope. Yet as the date and invitees fell into place, few groups stepped forward with positions. One official at a Jewish organization said the deeper issue was one of skepticism about where the process was headed. "We are silent or muted because we don't want to contribute to the inevitable failure of Annapolis - that either nothing will come of it or Israel will be put at a strategical disadvantage," he said, not wanting his name to be used because of the sensitivity of the subject. The unnamed official said, though, that whatever the reservations, "noboby in the organizational world wants to be [seen as] being critical or second-guessing the Israeli government... or the Bush administration." He added that not only is it awkward to attack an initiative pushed by both the US and Israel, but that "the conventional wisdom is that this thing is doomed to be a failure and we don't want it blamed on Israel or the American Jewish community for being intransigent or unwilling to go the last mile for peace." But Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a left-wing organization which has emphatically backed the peace process, said such an attitude makes for a self-fulfilling prophesy. "This can't be a reason for staying aloof," he said. "If you decide you want this to succeed, you weigh in and try to make a difference." He said of the silence that "morally, it's flawed" since the mainstream groups purport to support a two-state solution and that is what the Annapolis conference is aimed at creating. Nir, who spent years covering Washington for Israeli and Jewish media outlets, called the silence around the Annapolis conference "bizarre" and "an anomaly." "It's a very big deal and there's just silence. There's just nothing coming out of Jewish groups... it's not even featured on their Web sites," he said. "Usually there's a buzz, there's something." Ofira Seliktar, a professor of political science at Gratz College who has tracked the American Jewish community's response to Israeli initiatives such as the Oslo peace process and the disengagement from Gaza, said this "total silence" stems in part from the shortcomings of these previous efforts. "The middle-of-the-road people are not really sure what's good, what's bad. There's a tremendous amount of ambivalence, now even more than during Oslo," she said. And, she noted, "the American Jewish community is very deeply split," so the people who aren't in the middle of the road but are on either side are the loudest. Seliktar added that how Annapolis will handle many details concerning final-status issues - Jerusalem, borders, refugees - is still unknown, adding to the uncertainty and the desire many have to delay taking a stand. The JCPA felt it had waited long enough by Monday, with rumors flying fast and furious that the conference would take place the next week. "When things crystallized for the meeting next week, we thought it was timely to issue such a statement," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the JCPA. Not everyone thought it was so timely. The Orthodox Union, one of the 14 national organizations the JCPA represents, was among those on the Right not pleased by the statement. "We did not see it in advance and we have expressed our displeasure with that process failure at the JCPA," said Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. The OU has been taking action to pressure the Israeli government not to relinquish Jerusalem, from corresponding with the Prime Minister's Office to encouraging synagogues to focus their Torah study on the holy city. "You'd have to be under a rock not to know that the OU would be upset with that statement," said one senior official at a different JCPA member organization, who added that the statement was much more controversial than those usually issued without consultation by the JCPA. But Raffel said that the JCPA doesn't consult with the 14 national members and 100-plus local federation chapters that it represents before making statements, especially since the issue had come up without argument at a recent task force meeting. "There is nothing unusual with the statement that we issued. We support and have always supported active US involvement with these issues," he added. "We support Israel's efforts to achieve peace and security for the people of Israel." In terms of the qualms many organizational members have, he said, "We know that it's difficult and we know it's complex and we know the chances for success might not be high - but it's better to try than to do nothing.