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I. Articles

The New York Times
A Constituency Ready for Peace

By J.J. Goldberg

NOV 29, 2001

As the Bush administration begins its new round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, officials are nervously watching for reactions not only among Israelis and Palestinians, but also in the Jewish community at home.

If past experience is any guide, leaders of prominent American Jewish organizations will be following all of the diplomatic moves closely, waiting to pounce on any hint that the administration is pressuring Israel for concessions. Protests from those leaders traditionally raise the political costs at home of any step by Washington that Jerusalem finds disagreeable.

The fact is, however, that American Jews and even Israelis are probably far more open to some reasonable pressures on Israel in the cause of a Middle East peace than most politicians believe.

Secretary of State Colin Powell's decision to send Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine Corps general, to Israel without announcing a detailed peace agenda at home assures that whatever pressure is applied to Israel now will be behind closed doors, thousands of miles from the United States. Administration officials acknowledge that their strategy is designed at least partly to blunt Jewish-American lobbying.

Recent polls suggest, however, that the administration has more room to maneuver than the lobbyists let on.

A survey at the end of October for The Forward, an independent national news weekly of Jewish affairs, found American Jews almost evenly split 51.5 percent for, 48.5 percent against on the question of whether the Bush administration was right to call in mid-October for Israeli "restraint" in "responding to Palestinian terrorism." The survey, which was conducted by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew University, found opinion similarly split on the question of whether Israel "should have responded positively" to the administration's call for restraint.

A separate poll was conducted in late October by the Israel Policy Forum, the Wilstein Institute and New York Jewish Week. It found 85 percent of American Jews saying it was "very important" for the United States to take an activist role in ending the violence in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and in renewing peace negotiations. The respondents seemed to understand the reasons for the current American pressure for peace negotiations. A majority, 59 percent, said Israel "should do whatever is necessary" to help the United States keep Arab countries a part of the antiterror coalition.

Many American Jews see their community as bearing a responsibility to serve as Israel's advocates in the United States. Yet, surprisingly, while American Jews are more flexible than their spokesmen who lobby in Washington, Israelis are even more flexible. A poll published Nov. 23 in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv found 55 percent of Israelis saying Israel's best option right now is to "accelerate efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians." Just 20 percent wanted Israel to "declare war on the Palestinian Authority," while 19 percent favored maintaining the "current situation" of low-grade conflict.

A very substantial minority of Israelis, 44 percent (with 53 percent opposed), would even like the United States to "impose a solution on Israel and the Palestinians that would end the violence between them" something American Jewish organizations have consistently opposed.

American Jews are at heart a moderate community. If President Bush and his advisers plot America's course carefully and explain it well, they will find substantial support. American Jewish organizations will not risk losing their constituents' backing if they engage constructively in the current round of Middle East diplomacy, aiming to have a voice in the administration's strategy for the negotiations but not to dictate it.

J.J. Goldberg is the editor of The Forward.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times - All rights reserved.