Washington — Liking it or not, American Jewish leaders have accepted as a fait accompli the United States decision to pursue a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and they are focusing on the future. ``The US should press for semantic clarification'' of PLO chief Yasser Arafat's apparent acceptance of Israel's right to exist, says David Harris, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee.
``And the US should attach a litmus test of performance to assess whether Arafat is serious. Will PLO deed match PLO word? Will PLO word match PLO word? What will Arafat say in Baghdad, in Algiers? And what will his deputies say?''
Robert K. Lifton, president of the more liberal American Jewish Congress, says he is feeling ``hope with caution'' over the US decision. He details some of the actions Mr. Arafat must take to show he is sincere: ``He must publicly cancel the Palestine National Covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel. He must punish all terrorists, turn them over to the authorities.''
``The US,'' Mr. Lifton continues, ``must show Israel that it is not abandoning it. ... If Israel negotiates, the US must be willing to stand by it.''
Abraham Foxman, director of the more conservative Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, echoes such views, calling the new US-PLO dialogue an ``opportunity.''
But, he continues, ``In the pit of my stomach, I am worried. ... Arafat, unfortunately, has a record of changing his mind. If tomorrow there's a terrorist act, he must condemn it.''
Mark Rosenbloom of American Friends of Peace Now, the left-wing support organization for Israel's Peace Now, sees this as a time of unprecedented risk in the American Jewish community. He cautions against heightened expectations just because Arafat has crossed one major semantic hurdle.
``It would be unwise to expect further unilateral actions from Arafat any time soon,'' Mr. Rosenbloom says. ``Also, we can't hold Arafat responsible for all PLO violence.''
It is too soon to assess reaction within the rank and file of the American Jewish community, but Leonard Fein, author of ``Where Are We? The Inner Life of America's Jews,'' does not expect a consensus.
``The PLO has been the devil all these years. Now you're asking [US Jews] to turn on a dime; this killer with blood on his hands is suddenly an appropriate person to sit across the table from,'' Mr. Fein says. ``A lot of people are going to be torn.''
He sees a ``palpable distancing'' of American Jews from Israel over the ``Who is a Jew?'' debate. A proposed amendment to Israel's Law of Return would exclude from the definition of Jew - and therefore from automatic citizenship in Israel - converts to Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism. Those sects represent 90 percent of American Jews, and they see the amendment as a slap in the face.
``The question now,'' Fein says, ``is whether this distancing will move toward a more serious estrangement over the PLO.''
While acknowledging the friction over ``who is a Jew,'' Mr. Harris of the American Jewish Committee says that the PLO-US dialogue could cause American Jews to rally in support of Israel - especially if its new government winds up being a broad-based coalition.