The new battle among American Jews about Israel has become so bitter because it has spilled over into the Congress.
Not many years ago, there was an axiom among American Jews: Criticize Israel to the Israelis, or to other Jews, but never, never to the American public, and certainly not to American policy-makers.
Those days have gone forever. Today, a well-organized group of American Jews, who once believed in never publicly criticizing the Israeli government, has launched a strong lobbying effort to organize members of Congress against the peace process.
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has described it this way: "A loose coalition of some Jewish groups, conservative lawmakers and Israel's Likud Party are currently spearheading a drive to push through Congress three initiatives that have a real potential to undermine the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — which is exactly what the activists want."
The worst way American Jews could handle this internal struggle is by labeling each other as "traitors" to Israel. Neither side is a traitor, but one is wrong in its strategy for Israel's future security.
Both sides have in common a distrust of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat and the Syrians. But the pro-Rabin Jews believe that most Palestinians — and eventually most Syrians — will come around to the understanding that brought Egypt and Jordan to make a peace agreement: Israel is here to stay, and the only way for the Arabs to get on with their lives is to hold their noses and make some peace arrangement.
American Jews have a right to oppose the Israeli government's peace policies. Only history will tell us for sure whether they are right or wrong. But we can't wait for history. And at the moment, for most American Jews, the Israeli government strategy seems far more persuasive than the likely alternative: continued war, the greater domination of Hamas and the like among frustrated Palestinians, and an increase in terrorism.
However, with the active support of a sector of American Jews, Congress could put roadblocks in the way of that peace process. One has to do with moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, where it belongs, of course. But the question is, when?
At the request of some American Jews, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole introduced a bill that would set an early, inflexible date for the embassy move. Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel (and formerly of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.), has said this bill "would explode the peace process and put us out of business as a facilitator." Both the Israeli government and AIPAC disliked the Dole version, but finally did not oppose it for political reasons.
There is also an initiative to ban U.S. participation in a Golan Heights peacekeeping force that would monitor the region in the event of an Israel-Syria peace treaty. A U.S. force may indeed be problematic, but to pass such a ban prematurely, before the Syrian talks really get going, is just another effort to stall the peace process.
However, the most immediate controversy has to do with the 1994 Middle East Peace Facilitation Act (MEPFA), which Congress passed to enable the United States to participate in the peace process and, at Israel's request, to provide development funds for the Palestinian Authority. In September, that law has to be renewed. The Helms-Pell proposal, a bill by Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), strengthens the criteria for PLO compliance, and is supported by most American Jewish organizations and by the Israeli government.
But the American Jewish opposition to the peace process has generated alternative bills with such demands as a four-to-six-month deadline for Arafat to completely disarm Hamas and other undercover militants and extradite them to Israel. Such short-term objectives would be impossible to meet even if Arafat donned a yarmulke and converted to Zionism. They are designed simply to scuttle the peace process.
The passage of the Helms-Pell version will be an important test of America's support for the peace process. Members of Congress would like to hear from you.