Churches urge Clinton: Make Netanyahu uphold peace plan

NEW YORK — A coalition of Protestant and Catholic groups has asked the Clinton administration to press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to uphold commitments Israel has made in the peace process.

"There is concern in the church community that the Netanyahu government continues on the road to peace that both [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Shimon] Peres established," said Terence Miller, chairman of Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 14 groups representing some 45 million Christians.

Members include the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group of Protestant and Orthodox churches; United Methodist Church; United Church of Christ; Episcopal Church; American Baptist Churches in the USA; and the Roman Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

The umbrella group also includes "peace churches": Mennonite, Quaker and Church of the Brethren denominations.

The Clinton administration "must make clear that it opposes the building of new settlements and the expansion of existing settlements geographically or by adding population, including in the occupied areas in and near Jerusalem," the group said in a statement released in advance of Netanyahu's visit to Washington, D.C.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, criticized the action.

The coalition comprises "people who basically take an anti-Israel position and historically have had a double standard for Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

"Unless Israel does exactly what they want, they come down hard…You don't find them making similar demands on the Palestinian Authority or Syria."

In a June 11 letter to Clinton, the organization's executive committee recalled how the Bush administration used U.S. loan guarantees as leverage to curtail Israeli settlement activity in the territories.

"In recognition of the considerable financial aid provided to Israel and the restrictions placed by the Bush administration on loan guarantees, Americans are particularly alert and sensitive about the financing of Israel's settlement program," the letter said.

The umbrella group had urged President Bush to withhold the $10 billion in loan guarantees until Israel agreed to stop construction of West Bank and Gaza settlements.

Churches for Middle East Peace has opposed Israeli policies on other matters.

The organization has protested to the U.S. government about Israel's closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, imposed after the first of a series of suicide bombings in February and March.

While the group does not call itself pro-Palestinian, most members have close ties to Palestinian and Lebanese Christian churches, Miller said.

"We're in service to the local people we're sent to serve," he said.

Rudin is discouraged that the group is acting so so soon after Israel's elections.