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U.S. Jews Urge Bush to Press On

Leaders express hope that bloodshed won't end president's work for peace in the Mideast.

June 18, 2003|Judy Pasternak and Rennie Sloan | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — When President Bush threw himself into the Middle East peace process after keeping his distance for more than two years, Jews in the U.S. responded by and large with approval and relief.

Now Jewish voices across the country are expressing the hope that more bloodshed will not shake the president from his new commitment.

"Many obstacles lie ahead, and real danger lies ahead -- but we cannot give up the quest. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of a coalition of more than 250 Southern California rabbis representing the four major Jewish denominations.

What Bush should do next is a matter of debate. In this often-fractious and politically active community, there are plenty of differences of opinion, including what to ask of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

There was unanimity on some points. Time after time, interviews conducted in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington elicited comparisons of Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group responsible for many suicide bombings targeting Israelis, to Al Qaeda.

Repeatedly, Bush was urged to force the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, to crack down on Hamas. "That may mean a possible civil war, but that may be what's required now," said Charles F. Wittenstein, the retired Southern civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League.

At the Israel Policy Forum, an organization of American Jews that supports U.S. diplomacy in the region, M.J. Rosenberg said Bush could move the process along by persuading Israel and Palestinian officials to revive cooperative arrangements on security.

"This is where the U.S. goes in as the arbitrator and urges the Israeli defense minister and Palestinian head of security and says, 'How do we empower [Abbas] and at the same time fight this terrorism?' "

The president of one of the United States' largest pro-Israel groups said Bush should already have made specific demands of the Palestinian Authority leadership.

Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America ticked them off: "You've got to outlaw Hamas and Islamic Jihad. You've got to arrest the terrorists on Israel's list. You've got to collect the weapons in their hands. You've got to immediately stop the promotion of hatred and murder in the media and schoolbooks. Your officials have to make speeches saying you respect Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state."

Klein said he believes that the "road map" put together by Bush, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations "will lead to more disaster" unless such conditions are met.

Others recommend that Bush himself attack Hamas -- in its wallet.

"The most effective thing the president and his advisors can do is figure out who is supporting Hamas and get them to withhold support," said Rabbi Michael P. Sternfield, who leads Chicago Sinai, a Reform congregation.

While the administration has accused some charities of sending money to Hamas and has blocked their assets, Rena Cohen, who lives in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md., has a few more candidates in mind: "Hello? The Egyptians, the Saudis. Stop them, put the pressure on them." Cohen is co-founder of Books for Israel, a project that sends used books from the U.S. to schools suffering from budget cuts imposed as resources are diverted to the military. She holds dual citizenship and lived in northern Israel 30 years ago. She recalls Israeli communities there coming under fire from Palestinian militants in Lebanon.

She was 17 then. "I had it shoved in my face. We were not safe."

She has no confidence in Abbas' ability -- or intention -- to rein in terror.

"This is terrorist leadership in other clothing," she said. "Abbas may have some technical differences, but the road map will not have a chance until they accept that the state of Israel has a right to exist, an unassailable right to exist."

When it comes to handling Israel and Sharon, U.S. Jews offered sometimes conflicting advice.

Back off, said Cohen: "Israel is quite capable of dealing with terrorists, except that it is constantly finding itself under a U.S. chokehold."

Press for real concessions, said Sternfield: "I think that an even-handed president needs to make known to the Israelis that to follow the road map ... they must show they are sincere about dismantling settlements, really moving settlers out of [the occupied] territories" -- as opposed to tearing down already abandoned outposts.

Bush's criticism of Sharon's attempt to kill Hamas leader Abdulaziz Rantisi rankled, even though the criticism was quickly downplayed by the White House.

"What Americans have to understand is that to Sharon, Hamas is the Osama bin Laden of Israel," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

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