Barak and the Latest American Soap Opera

America and Israel have an odd, new ritual. Israeli leaders come here to present their message. America is suddenly swept up in some domestic soap opera. Israel’s message is lost in the noise. It can be infuriating if you’re Israeli.

It started with Bibi Netanyahu’s January 1998 visit, amid diplomatic crisis. As he landed, the Lewinsky story broke. He returned in May, but the news was all about Frank Sinatra’s death. That August, Ehud Barak visited, newly crowned as Israel’s opposition leader. That’s when the blue dress surfaced.

This week was Barak’s first visit as prime minister. Just in time to mourn John F. Kennedy Jr.

This time, though, Barak didn’t feel at all frustrated. He wasn’t interested in media coverage. He wanted to talk with President Clinton to ensure they understood each other. With the public, Barak’s goal was to listen. Particularly with the Jewish community.

That’s why he insisted on small-group gatherings rather than the traditional prime ministerial address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. That’s the main reason he didn’t attend synagogue. He isn’t ready to address the Jews.

Barak faces a dilemma in addressing American Jewry. He knows Israel has a powerful asset in the organized Jewish lobby. He also knows that much of the community’s activist core isn’t on his wavelength. He knows that this can cause him grief. But, he admitted on several occasions last week, he doesn’t yet know what to do about it.

The gap is straightforward. Barak believes the Palestinians and Syrians are ready for peace, probably on terms Israel can safely accept. Most American Jews aren’t convinced. Result: Barak is preparing for a full-court press toward peace with the Arabs, while much of American Jewry is still waging war against them.

This translates into a welter of Jewish initiatives in Congress to give Israel protections it may not want: Restricting Palestinian aid, limiting U.S. participation in theoretical Golan peace-keeping forces, preventing Washington from rewarding hard-line Arab regimes when they soften.

The underlying assumption is that the Arabs haven’t shown they’re ready for peace. A favorite charge is that Yasser Arafat isn’t honoring his agreements, proving he hasn’t changed. The idea is to withhold American favors until they shape up.

Barak believes the Arabs are ready. Privately, he’s used the word “ludicrous” to describe the notion that the Palestinians represent a threat to Israel. He thinks his background as Israel’s military commander and intelligence chief qualifies him to judge these things. He believes that he knows how to handle the Arabs. He just can’t figure out how to handle his friends in America.

His advisers are divided. Some want him to impose his will on the central Jewish policy bodies in this country, such as the Conference of Presidents and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The advisers say these groups should be reflecting Israeli government views.

The advisers are particularly worried about Jewish rightists’ efforts to “demonize” Arafat. Without Arafat as a partner, there’s no peace process.

Other advisers don’t think it’s so bad if American Jews are more frightened of Arabs than the Israelis are. If American Jews are scared stiff — even needlessly so — they’ll push Washington to squeeze Arafat, and Israel will have an easier time negotiating. Cynical? Hey, it works.

Questioned last week on where he’s headed, Barak gave contradictory answers. He told listeners American Jews should do what they think is right. Yet he said the community should unite behind the peace process.

He also called for depoliticizing congressional support for Israel, restoring the bipartisan consensus of old. That’s code for ending the alliance between pro-Likud lobbyists and congressional Republicans, which has produced the harshest anti-Arab measures. One key figure, Rep. Ben Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Relations Committee — and the House’s sole Jewish Republican — has blocked adoption of a House resolution that congratulates Barak on his election. That sort of militancy is worrying.

Though uncertain, Barak did drop broad hints last week about which way he’s leaning. At one meeting, he was asked if some new structure weren’t needed in American Jewry to let the Israeli prime minister’s voice be heard. His answer was, yes, a structure is needed. But he doesn’t yet know what it should look like.

Nothing illustrates the gap between Israeli and American Jewish thinking better than the furor over Salam Al-Marayati, the Arab-American from Los Angeles recently nominated to serve on a 10-member U.S. commission on terrorism. The nomination, by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., raised a storm of protests from Jewish organizations. They accused Al-Marayati of endorsing terror and supporting Saddam Hussein.

Gephardt, cowed, withdrew the nomination, claiming that Al-Marayati’s security clearance would take too long. That enraged Arab Americans, who accused the Jewish leadership of blocking Al-Marayati simply because he’s an Arab.

It also enraged Los Angeles Jewish community leaders, incidentally. Al-Marayati has long been a key liaison between Jews and Muslims there. Jewish leaders say Al-Marayati’s views were distorted and taken out of context, making him appear more radical than he is. “We have always found him to be moderate, thoughtful and responsive to American-Jewish concerns,” says Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, ex-chair of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Committee.

Nearly every significant figure in Los Angeles’ Jewish community appears to share Fields’ view. But most refuse to speak on the record. They could lose their jobs. Only a few have spoken out, mainly predictable liberals.

In New York, the national Jewish organizations uniformly dismiss Al-Marayati as an extremist. Even liberal groups such as the Reform movement declined to break ranks, fearing weakness in the face of terrorism.

The problem wasn’t just Al-Marayati’s words, said Malcolm Hoenlein, director of the Conference of Presidents. America’s national security establishment feared Al-Marayati’s reputed links to Islamic extremism, he said. “They wouldn’t be able to work with the terrorism commission if Al-Marayati were sitting in the room.”

As the Al-Marayati debate raged, ironically, Israel was having the same argument: Preparing to name the first Arab member to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Barak personally approved the nomination of Hashem Mahameed as a symbolic step, to show that the 100-year war between Jews and Arabs was ending.

The Likud protested, claiming — in language almost identical to Hoenlein’s — that Israel’s security establishment “would no longer be able to work with the committee.”

The nominee was approved. Three more Arabs have since been appointed: two by Labor, one by — the Likud.

Al-Marayati, though, is still out. Call it another American soap opera.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.