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Merchants of Fear Bite the Hand That Sustains Israel

April 21, 2002|JONATHAN D. JACOBY | Jonathan D. Jacoby is a consultant for Jewish organizations.

NEW YORK — In my 30 years of working on behalf of Israel, I cannot remember a time when an administration official was repeatedly forced by hecklers to stop speaking at a major pro-Israel rally--until last week. At the Solidarity with Israel rally in Washington, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the Jewish community's most steadfast allies, was booed and jeered by rabble rousers when he said "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well."

The disrespect shown Wolfowitz appalled the demonstration's organizers. They quickly reminded the crowd that the rally was not a protest against U.S. Mideast policy but an occasion to support the war against terror and express solidarity with Israel. Still, the implications of the incident are troubling, because what happened to Wolfowitz is symptomatic of a new trend that could have serious consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship

The seeds of Wolfowitz's treatment were planted long before last week's rally. Though it may seem absurd, some activists in the American Jewish community and Israel have worked hard to create the false impression that the United States is coercing Israel to act against its own interests. Incredibly, they are arousing fears that Israel's most trusted and loyal ally may abandon the Jewish state. To most of the world, this is ridiculous. Yet today, a small and growing number of American Jews believe it, leading them to distrust the administration and encouraging partisan divisions on issues related to Israel.

Much of this derives from a lobbying campaign to undermine Bush administration policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. has rightly criticized and exerted enormous pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to act forcefully to end the terrorist attacks on Israel. At the same time, the administration realizes that Arafat remains a key Palestinian decision-maker. He simply cannot be excluded from the peace process at this time if it is to succeed.

But there are some Jewish activists who believe that Arafat and the Palestinian leadership can and should be militarily defeated. They have attempted to draw a direct parallel between Osama bin Laden and Arafat, between the Taliban and the Palestinian Authority. Such a nefarious association, in effect, makes all current Palestinian political entities and leaders eternal enemies of the Jewish state. Any U.S. effort to negotiate with them, therefore, is an anti-Israel act. "The assumption of the past decade that the Palestinians were ultimately committed to a negotiated settlement with Israel has been proven tragically misguided," a Jewish leader said recently.

This idea has a far more powerful champion. While U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was shuttling between meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Arafat, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, "The only way to defeat" Arafat and the current Palestinian leadership "is to destroy" them. Netanyahu, who went to Washington to be the rally's featured speaker, made a point of lauding U.S. leadership in the fight against terror. "No greater friend of Israel has ever been in the White House" than President Bush, he proclaimed. But Netanyahu has also been leading a campaign of veiled criticism of the administration's Middle East policies. A week earlier, he protested before the U.S. Senate: "Though we are assured by friends that we have the right to defend ourselves, we are effectively asked not to exercise that right."

In essence, a former Israeli prime minister accused the U.S. government of denying Israel its right to self-defense. Yet, few, if any, Jewish officials protested Netanyahu's insinuation.

This silence was deafening to those in the Jewish community who believe that the United States has a critical mediating role to play in the Mideast, a role that complements, rather than conflicts with, the special friendship and strategic alliance of the U.S. and Israel. Even more worrisome were the voices of American Jewish activists who echoed Netanyahu's intimation that the U.S. was acting against Israel's interests. One organizational leader went so far as to suggest that by placing "a time limit on Israel's acts of self-defense," the administration would be hampering "Israel's legitimate right of self-defense."

Netanyahu's views, to be sure, are far more rigid than those of most American Jews. But by fueling fears that the United States is ignoring Israel's security needs and denying it the right of self-defense, he has won over many in the pro-Israel community.

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