300 Jewish leaders converge on Capitol to support peace

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jewish leaders and grassroots activists from across the country gathered Tuesday on Capitol Hill to declare their "unequivocal support" for the Middle East peace process and for the Israeli government.

Timing their convocation to coincide with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' address to a joint meeting of Congress, more than 300 activists vowed to staunchly support peace and to no longer be labeled a silent majority.

"This is not and never has been a monolithic community. However, we are here in Washington to say in a clear and unhesitating voice that the organized American Jewish community overwhelmingly supports the Israeli government's pursuit of peace," said Lynn Lyss, chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, which co-sponsored the event with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Local Jewish leaders at the meeting included Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council; Roselyne "Cissie" Swig, former president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and director of the Art in Embassies program with the U.S. State Department; and her husband, Richard Swig, who chaired the JCF's 1995 campaign.

Congressional leaders flocked to the meeting in support of Israel. Senior members of President Clinton's peace process team updated delegates on the status of the peace talks.

Dennis Ross, the State Department's special coordinator for the Middle East, and U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk hailed the goal of the day.

"Those who believe in peace cannot sit on their hands," Ross told the gathering.

The activists also used the occasion to engage in a lobbying blitz, calling for passage of a $12.1 billion foreign aid bill, currently held up in Congress, that includes aid for Israel and Egypt.

The bill also contains an extension of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act — due to expire Dec. 31 — which allows U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and diplomatic contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"Our government, which has long supported bold and innovative efforts to help the Mideast peace process succeed, has a particularly pivotal role to play at this defining moment in the history of the Middle East," said Steve Grossman, AIPAC president. "Its continued partnership with Israel in realizing peace with security could not be more essential."

The foreign aid appropriations bill, considered critical to the peace process, has been stalled amid an unrelated fight between anti-abortion members of the House and abortion-rights forces in the Senate.

At issue is a provision that would deny funding for organizations that provide abortions overseas and would cut off money to the U.N. Population Fund unless it ceases its operations in China by March 1.

The delay has caused great consternation in Israel, which is accustomed to receiving its $1.8 billion in military aid and $1.2 billion in economic assistance by the end of October.

Unless Congress passes the foreign aid bill, Israel will be forced to enter its new budget year without the $1.2 billion in cash assistance needed to pay off its foreign debts.

Pursuing the theme of the peace rally Sunday in New York's Madison Square Garden, Jewish leaders declared that the "silent Jewish majority," which has long supported the Arab-Israeli peace process, will no longer remain silent in the wake of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.

"The organized Jewish community has a responsibility to let our elected officials in Washington know where we stand on the peace process," Lyss said.

"We also have an internal responsibility to develop a culture of civil discourse," she added. "We need to find effective and constitutional methods in dealing with extremists on the fringe."

Addressing the Jewish activists, Peres praised their outpouring of support. "We are proud of the position you took," he said, noting that support of the peace process "wasn't always fashionable."

"We are very expectant to see it continue," he said.

Organizers of the advocacy day — NJCRAC and AIPAC, with the participation of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations — expressed support for Israel as it forges ahead with peacemaking.

"We're making a commitment that this is not a one-day operation," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman for the NJCRAC. "This is part of what we expect will be an ongoing priority of the community to intensify its support of the peace process."