Chance for Peace Gains Wary Support

With the Mideast "road map" inching forward and a new Palestinian leadership gaining traction both at home and in Washington, Jewish leaders here — with the usual exceptions — are ready to give peace a chance.

That was evident at last week’s meeting between Palestinian Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas and a delegation of 50 Jewish leaders assembled by the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).

However, unlike the euphoric days after the signing of the first Oslo agreement in 1993, the mood after last week’s meeting was restrained and realistic. Even peace process advocates like IPF and Americans for Peace Now seem determined to demand a measure of performance from Israel’s peace partners.

Abbas may be a breath of fresh air, as aone Jewish participant enthused, but it is far from clear whether he can fulfill his promises. And while the prime minister said many of the "right" things last week, he also dropped hints that he can’t or won’t comply with some of the most basic demands of the Bush administration’s Mideast road map, starting with a dismantling of the terror groups that have spilled so much Israeli blood.

On the right, demands for a "performance-based" peace process are often just a cover for complete opposition to any serious negotiations, because performance requirements are set impossibly high. Among more centrist groups and especially in the dovish sector of the community, a refusal to take a hard-headed look at Palestinian performance was one reason groups lost credibility when the Oslo peace process crashed and burned.

It wasn’t exactly a love fest, but Abbas impressed most of the assembled Jewish leaders, although the guest list did not include ardent foes of the peace process, such as the Zionist Organization of America, which was protesting the Abbas visit outside the White House.

The generally positive reaction among Jewish leaders mirrored the response from the White House, although congressional leaders — much more hawkish these days than the Bush administration — were less impressed.

Jewish leaders, though, were restrained in their enthusiasm. Many expressed serious doubts that Abbas will be able to stand up to efforts of groups like Hamas and to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who seems to be working full time to undercut the man he appointed to the new post of prime minister.

In the heady days after the 1993 Oslo signing, Jewish leaders were touting a new Middle East; last week they were wondering how the old Middle East would affect Abbas’ prospects for survival and whether his positive-sounding words could be matched by deeds.

Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA’s executive vice chair, said that the dominant reaction of the Jewish leaders was "relief" that there now appears to be a Palestinian leader committed to a fair settlement of the conflict.

The relief was tempered by caution. Most Jewish leaders are willing to give Abbas a chance, and most are willing to support President Bush’s efforts to bolster the Palestinian leader, including the recent White House decision to offer direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, a major shift in U.S. policy.

However, they expect to hold Abbas accountable for his actions; their support will be conditional on his performance. They also expect the administration to apply the same standard.

That poses a particularly big challenge for Jewish peace groups like IPF and Americans for Peace Now. Many of their key positions — land-for-peace negotiations, Palestinian statehood, removing most settlements — are supported by a majority of American Jews and Israelis, according to recent polls.

But these groups lost the Jewish public after the new intifada exploded on the scene in September 2000, because of their slowness in responding to the big gap between Arafat’s words and deeds, something the right had been slugging away at for years.

The peace groups sometimes gave the impression they were more intolerant of Israeli actions like settlement expansion than they were of Arafat’s unending reliance on violence as a negotiating tool. Too often, naked hope trumped clear-headed realism, something that cost these groups dearly as American Jews reacted strongly to the resumption of violence.

Judging by last week’s meeting, there is a new realism among top Jewish leaders here. That same response will be needed among pro-peace process groups.

That could be an important first step in regaining the trust of a Jewish public that still longs for a fair peace, but has become much more skeptical about Israel’s potential partners in the process.