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Jewish World Review June 25, 1999 /11 Tamuz 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Who Changed the Rules?:
Among American Jews, it's getting harder to tell the difference between mainstream and marginal --
WHEN PRESIDENT CLINTON invoked a national security waiver last week to avoid having to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he did it without fear of an uproar among American Jews.

Clinton's decision was no surprise. It was, in fact, no more than a reaffirmation of a decades-old American policy against recognizing Jerusalem's status as Israel's capital. It resulted in a few feeble pro-forma protests from American Jewish groups and the government of Israel.

Nothing new there. The debate about moving the embassy is an old one, with most of the familiar players going through their familiar paces without much fire or passion.

Among the few not following the script were members of the Zionist Organization of America and their counterparts on the left: representatives of the Reform movement and Americans for Peace Now. ZOA strongly condemned the Clinton action, while Peace Now and friends enthusiastically supported it.

While paying lip service to the concepts of relocating the embassy and a united Jerusalem, Peace Now said "President Clinton absolutely did the right thing." It also endorsed a resolution to the status of Jerusalem that would be "accommodating the national aspirations" of Palestinian Arabs as well as Israelis. It urged that the United States do nothing "that would prejudice the outcome of the final-status talks on Jerusalem one way or the other." Especially it seems, making clear to the Palestinians that the United States will not pressure Israel to make concessions on Jerusalem.

That ZOA would blast Clinton and Peace Now would support him isn't news. What I do find interesting is that while ZOA's position might once have been considered completely mainstream and Peace Now's so marginal as to border on heresy, I don't think you can really say that is true anymore.

When you look at the fact that Peace Now supporters have friends in high places in the Clinton administration, Clinton's utter fearlessness about offending Jewish sensibilities on Jerusalem becomes very understandable.

Legitimized by the Oslo peace process and the growing electoral strength of the Israeli left - as well as by their insider status in Clintonian Washington - it is a difficult sell trying to paint Peace Now as a heretical out-of-the-mainstream group anymore.

Dispute their stands on the issues if you will (and I do), but it is no use pretending they are way out on a limb anywhere. Theirs may not be the majority view among American Jews (I hope not), but in the age of Clinton, they are in the "mainstream."

On the other hand, ZOA's position, which stresses a hard line on Jerusalem, opposition to a Palestinian Arab state and strict Palestinian Authority observance of the Oslo agreements - the kind of positions you would think would be the Mom and apple pie of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel - are often (unfairly) depicted in the secular as well as the Jewish media as extremist.

This is illustrated by the lack of confidence in support for these mainstream positions. An aide to U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., (who has been the lead sponsor of attempts to move the embassy) ruled out a challenge to Clinton's stand because he feared the outcome would suggest to the Palestinians that American support for an undivided Jerusalem is wavering!

Ironically, this change has been encouraged by the Israeli Labor Party (now "One Israel"), which now faces the task of defending Israel's hold on Jerusalem in the peace talks. Labor fought hard to squelch the ZOA's questioning attitude toward Oslo during its last term in office (1992-96). Over the past three years, when Laborites took their turn on the Knesset's opposition benches, they also encouraged their American supporters to back Clinton in his disputes with the government