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American Jews, Arabs Have a Lot Riding on Mideast Trip

The two sides wonder how committed Bush is to their goals. Overall, Americans back his aims and approach, a survey suggests.

May 31, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush intensifies his push for Middle East peace, the stakes are rising for two groups of Americans who will be looking on with hope and anxiety next week when Bush brings the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers together.

Both Jewish and Arab Americans are hoping that a president who has doggedly pursued campaigns against terror groups and hostile regimes will prove just as determined in building peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet some Jewish American organizations fear the international peace effort could force Israel to make dangerous concessions, while Arab Americans want proof that a president who has been especially close to Israel's hawkish leadership will also look out for Palestinian interests.

As Bush prepares to play host in the region first to a gathering of Arab leaders and then to a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, "there's broad support among Jewish groups for this process under this president," said Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union. "But there's still a lot of skepticism -- I don't think there's any question about that."

Among the 3.5 million Arab Americans, there is "overwhelming" support for efforts to build separate and secure Palestinian and Israeli states, said James Zogby, president and founder of the Arab American Institute.

Yet "there is concern that they haven't seen the president perform on this issue before.... In fact, they saw the president spend 2 1/2 years not addressing the question," he said.

When the "road map" peace plan was developed last year by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, many Jewish groups first focused on its shortcomings. The plan calls for the two sides to make gradual and reciprocal concessions, leading to creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Some Jewish organizations have objected to the plan's insistence that those concessions be made at the same time, arguing that Israel should have to act only after the Palestinians fulfill their obligation to quell violence.

Trust and Fear

As President Bush has made clear his commitment to the plan, many of the principal Jewish groups have sought to emphasize in public statements their support for the peace effort, despite reservations. They have been especially positive since last weekend, when the Cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave the effort a qualified endorsement.

Support for the plan was reflected in a memo sent out this week by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group, which often reflects the center of Jewish American opinion. Though AIPAC leaders only a few weeks ago were stressing their qualms about the plan , in the memo they emphasized Sharon's determination to end a situation that he has said poses a fundamental threat to his country.

The idea that Israel "can continue keeping under occupation ... 3.5 million Palestinians is very bad for Israel, the Palestinians and Israel's economy," the memo quoted Sharon as saying.

There is relief that so far Israel and its advocates in this country have not clashed with Bush, who has been an international champion of Israel and is near the peak of his popularity among Americans.

Yet there is also concern, officials of Jewish organizations say.

They worry about how the administration will address the 14 issues the Sharon government has raised with the White House about the plan. The key issues deal with protecting Israel's security as the country seeks to reduce its military activity and to permit the Palestinians greater authority over themselves.

The White House has promised to tackle these concerns but has been vague about how.

Meanwhile, some American Jews fear that Bush may be signaling that at some point, he will apply pressure on Sharon to dismantle settlements and cede territory.

In an interview Thursday with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Bush insisted, "I am absolutely determined to carry on until the bitter end."

Touching on one of the most sensitive issues raised by the peace plan, he declared that "the expansion of settlements is a contradiction to our efforts to create a Palestinian state."

If Bush eventually insists that Sharon begin dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, American organizations could find themselves called upon by the Israeli prime minister to oppose the policies of a hugely popular American president.

Most Jewish leaders have been reluctant to criticize Bush, but they have openly expressed anxieties about the role in the plan of the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, which they consider biased in favor of the Palestinians.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the American Jewish community views Bush's commitment "with trust and hope and prayers for success."

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