Barak in America

I am always surprised when Israeli officials tell me how much they depend on America’s Jewish leaders for support in the United States. Sometimes it is support from members of Congress, sometimes from the White House. But the emphasis is always there: We need your help.

Presumably a desire for help was partly what drew new Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to New York and Washington this past week, though his meetings with President Clinton also involved a certain “getting acquainted” process — a way of seeing whether there was chemistry (and trust) between the two leaders. The capstone of the visit — political discussions aside — was the state dinner in Barak’s honor at the White House, with 400 invited guests, most of them Jewish and influential and wealthy (many from New York), all the Jewish members of the House and Senate (at least all were invited), and an abundant supply of stars, including: Ron Perelman, of Vanity Fair fame, accompanied by actress Ellen Barkin; Ronald Lauder, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman as well as Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour of CNN; and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger and Gen. Colin Powell.

More than a dozen Angelenos were invited, some of whom were: Mervyn and Theo Adelson, Gil and Diane Glazer, Mel Levine, Bruce Ramer, Haim Saban, Stanley Sheinbaum, Professor Steven Spiegel, Bud and Cynthia Yorkin and me. I will tell you only that I may have passed through the gates a skeptical journalist, but within five minutes of strolling through some of the White House rooms, I emerged a totally committed American patriot. It is that heady.

But pomp and circumstance aside, the most impressive part of the week was Prime Minister Barak as he went about his task of taking charge. It was made clear to everyone that the peace process was the number one item on his agenda. Conflicts between secular and Orthodox Jews in Israel were going to be put on hold; and Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States were going to have to wait until the peace process was settled before he engaged on that particular front.

In all his interviews, Barak stressed that his gaze is focused on the difficult obstacles that stand in the way of achieving peace with his immediate neighbors, namely the Palestinians and the Syrians. He seemed to convince everyone he was neither a utopian nor soft-headed. He knew that peace itself would not come easily; that there would be setbacks; that there were few solutions most parties (including Israel) would like; and that moving forward with practical proposals that all parties could live with, would count most. There’s no pity for the weak, he said repeatedly, and no second chance. All this in an effort to make evident that he was being hardheaded, realistic and certainly not optimistic. Just determined, in a low-key way, to try to make it work. It was an impressive stand and seemed to win approval with most audiences.

Then the segue. To maintain Israeli security while negotiating a peace, he needs financial and military aid from the United States. The problem, of course, (as he knows) is that this is not a particularly auspicious time for foreign aid, either for Israel or for such Arab states as Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It has been a well-known secret around Washington for some time now that, in the crunch, American Jews (at Israel’s behest) have pushed Congress to pitch in and help the Arab nations, even though those countries have not been ardently committed to democracy or favorably disposed toward the United States.

Barak, ever the field commander, knows that if Israel is to receive both military and financial aid during the next congress, much will depend on the lobbying of American Jewish organizations, particularly AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents. Think of it as a general calculating supplies down the road as his army advances.

There may be a problem — though I suspect his performance here has gone a long way toward solving it. In the past, AIPAC and the Conference have tended to hew to a more conservative line than, say, that of the majority of American Jews. They have been strong supporters of Likud under Shamir and very much behind Binyamin Netanyahu when he was prime minister. Ronald Lauder, head of the Conference of Presidents, indeed is a personal friend and backer of Netanyahu. In general, they have pressed ahead on issues that summon forth a gut reaction from many American Jews — Arafat’s failure to press Hamas sufficiently and the delayed move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — are just two examples.

The problem (given Barak’s agenda) is that by setting these points at the top of a nonnegotiable list, they interfere with his ability to bargain flexibly across a broad spectrum. In effect, they help stall the peace process. And by lobbying for this agenda with Congress, these Jewish groups have indirectly joined the battle between the Republican majority on the Hill and the administration. If nothing else, these moves suggest an attempt by U.S. Jewish conservative leaders to steer a course by placing their hand on Israel’s foreign policy tiller. That may have been what prompted Barak to emphasize to each separate Jewish group that it is most important to put the past behind us, and to start afresh.

One difficulty with being forceful (as Barak is) and addressing so many Jewish organizations — each with its own special interest and its own political bias — is that his messages are subject to different “spins” or interpretations. For example, he emphasized that America and Israel were both democracies and, therefore, were able to handle divergent or pluralistic opinions; and that, moreover, it is understandable (and acceptable) for American Jews to criticize Israel. That view has not always been accepted, either here or in Israel.

During the intifada, for instance, the Jewish establishment here denounced Americans for Peace Now for speaking out against Israel in public. Today, of course, the shoe is on the other foot, and organizations such as Americans for a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America can take these words, if they choose, as empowerment to challenge some of Barak’s statements and actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In effect, they can attack him for (in their view) compromising Israel’s security.

The key question, however, is how the mainstream Jewish organizations (i.e. the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC) will eventually respond to Barak. Will they join him or play out in opposition some of the more personal views of their conservative leaders? By inviting them to share a role, to be insiders, Barak is dangling a most tempting carrot.

Moreover, his assertiveness, directness and sense of command this past week has received much praise. What was apparent from just a few days in Washington is just how effective a communicator this Israeli leader is, despite his heavily accented English. The chemistry between him and Clinton, all the press agreed, was extremely positive. So, too, was his impact on members of Congress and on the American press. He has just about lined up all his ducks: the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Lebanon, the White House and Congress, and, finally, the American Jewish leadership. The military strategist in action. He just needs to give the orders to his Cabinet and his own countrymen: Let’s move forward. — Gene Lichtenstein