New York — One of the top Jewish leaders in the country, taking a controversial stance on the unrest in Israel, is urging territorial compromise for peace. Robert Lifton, the newly elected president of the American Jewish Congress (AJC), met in January with Arab and Israeli leaders to discuss a trade of some part of the occupied territories for a solution consistent with Israel's security needs.
Mr. Lifton traveled as a member of an AJC delegation that met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Israel, King Hussein in Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and King Hassan in Morocco.
Lifton, a New York businessman and a graduate of Yale Law School, had some strong statements for them. The AJC's message was that ``in the last analysis, those administrations and governments will topple if their people do not see their way clear to a better life,'' Lifton says. He adds that it is incumbent upon the nations of the Middle East to ``join together and try to become something greater than they are now, by taking advantage of the talent and the brains among all of them.''
The growth rate of the Arab population is such that by the turn of the century, Lifton says, more than half the population under Israeli rule will be Arab. The Israelis, he says, ``have to face the problem that if they enfranchised that population, Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. And if they refused to enfranchise that population, they would have a population which is a second-class citizenry in a state that was not democratic.''
These circumstances led the AJC, in contrast to many other American Jewish groups, to stand behind the principle that Israel should enter into negotiations involving trading part of the West Bank and Gaza for a peaceful solution. With a membership of more than 50,000 families, close ties with leaders in many European countries, and a Washington bureau that is in contact with members of Congress, Lifton's views may have far-reaching impact. He urges Israel to ``take advantage of the regard and affection that is held for you by the present administration,'' adding that President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz are among the best friends Israel has ever had.
However, he says, ``While we're telling the Israelis they have a responsibility, we're also telling the Arab leaders and the Palestinians they have a responsibility, and in both cases the status quo is untenable.'' The group told the Arab leaders, Lifton says, ``your responsibility is to tell the Israeli public and the world at large that you will recognize the sovereignty of the state of Israel and its need for security and its survival - unequivocally and clearly instead of hiding behind words.''
Lifton adds that many Palestinians are today living in a fantasy of regaining control of all of Israel. ``It's an appropriate negotiation to discuss the West Bank and Gaza, but it is not even appropriate to discuss the rest of Israel,'' he says.
Nevertheless, Lifton says the Palestinians must be part of the negotiations. ``If the people who have to deal with them will not recognize the PLO, they'd better come up with someone else.'' The recent bus hijacking in which six people were killed is among the terrorist acts that have tainted and discredited the PLO, he says.
Another barrier to negotiations he learned of when talking with Mubarak, Hussein, and Hassan, is that they ``have a very real concern that what would come out of the riots in the territories would be a stronger extremist fundamentalist group that threatens them maybe even more than it threatens Israel,'' Lifton says. ``Each of their sovereignties is more vulnerable to extremism of a fundamentalist kind than Israel is.''
One solution to the conflict suggests the development of a Jordanian/Palestinian confederation, in which, Lifton says, a million and a half more Palestinians would fall under Jordanian rule. This ``would not be totally consistent with Hussein's interests as the head of the Hashemite Kingdom,'' Lifton says, ``because the Palestinians would totally overwhelm the Hashemites. So one can understand that he is reluctant to get into these circumstances unless he is forced into it. And I think it's incumbent on the Arab world and on the rest of the world to put pressure on him to come to table and not change the rules of the game as they go along.''
Lifton says he finds Shamir's negotiating position hard to understand: ``If what he is doing is being a tough negotiator with an ultimate recognition of the realities as we perceive them, then I can't challenge him because no one is to say how one should negotiate. If [however] what he is being is totally intransigent and unwilling to come up with any solution that changes the status quo, then I'm very disappointed and disturbed by it.''