A Sea Change Among US Jews

A majority favors even-handedness in Mideast

As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tours the Middle East to get the peace process moving, there are reports that Israel is on a collision course with the United States, primarily because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reluctance to enact a settlement freeze and to agree to further Israeli redeployment from Palestinian territory in the near future. The prospect of such a collision worries the Clinton administration, in part because it does not want to pay a political price by alienating American Jews.

As an ardent supporter of Israel, I, for one, find any public disagreement between the US and Israeli governments very painful.

Maintaining the special relationship that Israel has with the US is important to me. At the same time, American prodding of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) - which must do more to fight terror and bears major responsibility for the current impasse - is the only way to foster the mutual compromises needed to stop more bloodshed. I support it. And a new poll shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the vast majority of American Jews do too.

A survey of 1,198 American Jews, conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates and commissioned by Israel Policy Forum, shows that 84 percent agree that the US should "apply pressure" on both Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to get the peace process moving, while 82 percent believe it is "important" for the US to publicly praise and criticize either side. Eighty-five percent supported Ms. Albright's call in September for a time-out on Israeli settlement expansion along with a crackdown by Mr. Arafat on terrorists.

These results directly contradict the message conveyed to the administration and Congress by some American Jews, who continue to warn that most of us do not want the US to be evenhanded. Many in Congress routinely embrace resolutions that echo the views of hard-liners, such as recent calls for cutting back US aid to the PA (a move that 6 out of 10 American Jews believe will lead to increased terrorism).

To its credit, the administration has listened to an increasing number of Jewish community leaders who say, for Israel's sake, the time has come for a new US approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is important the administration not feel politically constrained from building on the approach begun by Albright, when she castigated both the PA and Israel for provocations that block peace.

The administration has been reluctant to suggest concrete ideas to bridge yawning gaps between the sides. But 82 percent of American Jews think the US should reassure each side of support for their "major goals," such as "independent statehood" for Palestinians and "security and a united Jerusalem" for Israelis.

The wisdom and timing of specific US action is debatable, but one thing is beyond dispute: The US has the leeway from American Jews to praise, blame, cajole, criticize, and even make explicit suggestions to both Israel and the PA about "final status" issues. Such an approach is essential now, when the gulf between the parties is so wide that the Israeli Army is preparing for possible guerrilla war with the Palestinians.

Support for a strong Israel and solid US-Israel ties has not diminished: Ninety-two percent of American Jews agree that the US should strengthen its "special relationship" with Israel. But our community is energized by the conviction that unless the US steps in, a terrifying confrontation may ensue.

When Israel was a besieged state without Arab neighbors willing to talk and depending on the US for survival, we American Jews felt compelled to defend each and every Israeli government position. Few of us feel that way now. We do not want to mire ourselves in a Mideast blame-game. That means supporting even-handed US diplomacy.

A sea-change has taken place in the American Jewish community. America's Middle East policy has begun to change along with it. But it must transform itself even more to stave off a looming catastrophe for Jews and Arabs alike.

* Michael W. Sonnenfeldt is chair of Israel Policy Forum, an educational institute founded in 1993 to support the Mideast peace process.

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