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THE ISRAELI VOTE

Security Issue Key to the Outcome, Local Jewish Leaders Say

Reaction: Orthodox officials say the result validates criticism of peace efforts. Their more liberal counterparts worry about Sharon's hard-line history.

February 07, 2001|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Southern California Jewish leaders greeted the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel's prime minister Tuesday with a mixture of hope, foreboding and uncertain expectations.

The split was predictable: Orthodox leaders said Sharon's victory validated their criticism of defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak's peace efforts, and liberal Jewish leaders worried aloud about Sharon's hard-line history.

Whatever their views, leaders agreed that the recent bloodshed had once again made Israel's security the paramount issue for Jews in the U.S. and around the world.

"This election should not be viewed as a rejection of the peace process. If anything, it is a rejection of the notion that you can have a process about peace with continued violence," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Hier is Orthodox.

Agreeing was Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Beverly Hills. "These elections weren't a referendum about peace. They seemed to be more a referendum about security," she said.

Even moderate to liberal Jewish leaders--historically strong supporters of the peace process--said they had been deeply disillusioned by the failure of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to reciprocate during negotiations that saw Barak make what Jewish leaders called unprecedented concessions.

"I don't think any of us are afraid of, God forbid, war," said Rabbi Harvey J. Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform congregation. "But I think there is clearly going to be a kind of slowdown."

Nevertheless, opinions were sharply divided over what Sharon's election may portend. Several Jewish leaders noted that Sharon was implicated in massacres of Arabs during the war in Lebanon.

"It would be foolish to ignore those elements of his history," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a Reform body. But Yoffie added that Sharon is "very sensitive" to such perceptions and will probably create a government that will attempt to repair his reputation.

"It's not only Arabs frightened of Sharon. It's also Jews," said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino. "His [Sharon's] record in the past has not been a glorious one, and [Jews] are hoping against hope for something bordering on the miraculous."

Jewish leaders from various backgrounds, among them Rabbi Mark S. Diamond of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, said that, as a hard-liner, Sharon could do for peace in the Middle East what former President Nixon, a staunch anti-Communist, did in opening U.S.-Chinese relations.

It was a view shared by Hoda Elemary, an Arab and president of the Sadat Peace Foundation in New York. He said that he had talked with Sharon and that both agreed there had been concern about war when Menachem Begin became Israel's prime minister. Instead, Begin signed a historic peace accord in 1979 with then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Maher Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California disputed such ideas. "I don't think Sharon will be the tough guy who has come to do peace. I think he's the tough guy who's come to mess it up more."

U.S. Orthodox leaders saw the election as a rebuff of Barak's concessions to the Palestinians.

"Some things are holy," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Rabbinical Council of California, an Orthodox body. "The Palestinians did us all a great favor, ironically, in moving many Jews to the understanding that a nation has to be true to its history and heritage, its connection with the past, or it has no claim to the future. Barak showed himself to be all too eager to cast off the past entirely."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Ariel Sharon

Education: Studied history and Oriental studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1952 and 1953; studied law at Tel Aviv University from 1958 to 1962.

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Career: Fought in the 1948 War of Independence; in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, commanded 27,000 Israeli troops across the Suez Canal into Egypt, which helped turn the tide of war; held indirectly responsible for 1982 massacres in two Palestinian refugee camps, costing him his post as defense minister; served in parliament and held a variety of Cabinet posts during the past 19 years, gradually rehabilitating himself.

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Personal: He was born in 1928 in Moshav Kfar Malal, the son of Russian immigrants.

Source: Associated Press

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