U.S. Jewish Leaders Face Risky Situaton

As a new round of Mideast peacemaking begins, U.S. Jewish leaders are putting themselves on the line for a government in Jerusalem, whose real intentions are more impenetrable than ever.

In a flurry of actions and statements in recent days, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just added to the confusion — and to the risks U.S. Jewish leaders face as they rally their troops to support his government in the face of a friendly but firm squeeze from Washington.

A lot is at stake for U.S. Jewish leaders, whose greatest fear is getting caught in the crossfire between the Bush administration, the government in Jerusalem and their own constituents — a Jewish community that will support Israel’s fight for security, but which has little interest in fighting to preserve Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

Sharon has made a tantalizing, hard-to-read series of moves on the political and diplomatic chess board in recent days.

On May 25, the old hawk and architect of Israel’s sprawling settlements network won his government’s conditional endorsement of the international "road map" for Palestinian statehood. He won by a comfortable 12-7 vote, despite threats by far-right parties to bolt.

In a startling break with the past, Sharon told Likud Knesset members that the "occupation" must end, because "ruling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on indefinitely." That marked the first time a leader on the Israeli right referred to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza as an occupation.

At the same time, Sharon said construction in settlements will continue for generations. He has offered no clues about what kind of Palestinian state he will allow.

Sharon’s real intentions remain as opaque as ever. Is he prepared to offer a minimally acceptable amount of territory for creation of a Palestinian state and genuine sovereignty? Or are his recent statements and actions simply a new version of the old stall, meant to appease Washington until the pesky road map problem goes away?

Privately, members of his government say that accepting the road map wasn’t particularly risky, because they expect Yasser Arafat and Hamas to quickly undermine it.

The problem facing U.S. Jewish leaders, who have risked their relations with the Bush administration by lobbying against the road map in Congress, is that they don’t have a clue where Sharon is taking them and his nation. If Sharon’s endorsement was just a gambit, Jewish leaders here could find themselves in an awkward position, especially if the new Palestinian government tries to live up to its commitments under the plan.

A good-faith effort by the Palestinians could cause the administration’s enthusiasm for the road map, now tempered by low expectations, to soar. That could produce a White House backlash against those Jewish groups seen as trying to erect new road map obstacles on behalf of a balky government in Israel.

Alternatively, Jewish leaders could face a problem if the Sharon government really decides to embrace the plan. In the past, Israeli governments have abruptly reversed longstanding policy, leaving U.S. Jewish groups in the lurch.

That happened in 1993, when another old hardliner, Yitzhak Rabin, decided to talk to the PLO, while many Jewish groups here were still treating "dialogue" with Arafat as a mortal sin. It could happen again if Sharon surprises the world and decides to follow the road map’s route to a settlement.

Sharon’s whole history may argue against acceptance of the road map’s core demands, including quick timetables for statehood and a settlements freeze, but he has also demonstrated a fierce determination to preserve smooth relations with Washington.

Jewish groups here need to be prepared for sharp policy changes in Jerusalem, as Sharon weighs his options. Harder to deal with will be the already wide gap between community leaders and rank-and-file Jews on peace issues.

Polls show that a majority of U.S. Jews still support the road map’s basic principles, including Palestinian statehood, security for Israel and a negotiated end to the occupation, despite almost three years of horrific terrorism. If the plan moves forward, Jewish leaders, who seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against it, could find themselves at odds with a community that may be much more willing to see Israel take risks for peace.

American Jews will support Sharon as long as they believe he is fighting for Israel’s security. That support has generally encompassed even the tough military actions he has taken in recent months to do what the Palestinians have failed to do — put the terror groups out of business.

But they are unlikely to rise to the defense of an Israeli government that seems more intent on preserving settlements than on serious negotiations.

If the administration pursues the plan and Israel resists, the gap could widen between a Jewish leadership that defends the policies of the current Israeli government and a Jewish public that is not yet ready to abandon active, difficult peace efforts, despite two very grim years.