WASHINGTON -- Israel's peace strategy has split the American Jewish community, with some groups mounting an extraordinary public lobbying effort to generate opposition.
Equally extraordinary, the prime minister of Israel has publicly denounced the U.S. Jewish opposition as having no right to undermine his government when their children are not risking their lives on the front lines of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The fight arises from a challenge to the Israeli government and the Clinton administration by leaders of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the Orthodox Union, who have pressed members of Congress and called publicly for suspending or slowing U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. That aid is a critical part of the peace arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians.
Other organizations, including the influential American Jewish Committee, argue that opponents of the Israeli government's policies represent only a minority of this country's Jewish population.
But they say the campaign by critics threatens to distract and confuse Congress, and forces other organizations to spend more time, money and effort in persuading lawmakers to support the peace process.
"It's a dangerous time for U.S. supporters of the opposition in Israel to be helping that opposition by seeking to confuse and distract American policy-makers to the detriment of the policies of the elected government of Israel," said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, one of the nation's oldest Jewish organizations.
The split was highlighted during a visit last week by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose Labor Party campaigned on a pledge to negotiate with Arabs. His signature was barely dry on an agreement expanding Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank before he lashed out at his American critics: "Never before have we witnessed an attempt by U.S. Jews to pressure Congress against the policies of a legitimate, democratically elected government."
Back in Israel this week, he went further: "When issues of peace and war are involved, which are the two sides of the coin of our lives in Israel, whoever doesn't send his sons and daughters to the army will not be able, nor does he have the moral right, to act against a government elected by the Israeli people."
Mr. Rabin didn't mention names. But there was little doubt that one of his prime targets was Morton Klein, national president of the 50,000-member ZOA, who was in the room at the Madison Hotel last week when Mr. Rabin spoke to Jewish leaders. In recent months, Mr. Klein has mounted an aggressive Capitol Hill lobbying effort against U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
TC The ZOA contends that Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has failed to curb terrorism against Jews and that he still dreams of eventually destroying the Jewish state.
Mr. Klein continues to express this view even though the agreement signed last week commits the Palestinians, after elections, to renounce language in the Palestine Liberation Organization charter that calls for Israel's destruction.
"Why aren't we looking this in the face? We're refusing to say the emperor has no clothes," Mr. Klein said in a telephone interview after Mr. Rabin's broadside from Jerusalem on Monday.
By pushing for suspension of aid, Mr. Klein says, the ZOA actually is strengthening the Israeli government's hand in getting Palestinians to fulfill their commitments.
The efforts by ZOA and other opponents of Palestinian aid breach the tradition among large Jewish organizations of
operating on the basis of consensus, says Shoshana Cardin, a Baltimorean and past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
She says a majority of Jewish leaders believe that the aid is necessary for Palestinians to see some benefit from the peace process.
In the past, whatever their disagreements with the Israeli government, American Jewish leaders and organizations generally deferred to Israel's elected leaders on matters of security.
Now, as the Israeli government begins to yield West Bank territory of deep religious significance and prepares to pull back from the strategic Golan Heights, some U.S. Jews have become increasingly active and public in expressing concern or stoking outright opposition.
Their efforts coincide with disillusionment among many Israelis who have yet to feel more secure since Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat launched the transfer of land and authority from Israel to the Palestinians two years ago.
Those activities also coincide with mailings and visits here by leaders of Israel's opposition Likud Party, which opposes the principle of trading land for peace.
Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said American Jewish leaders has voiced muted criticism of Israeli governments in the past, but avoided lobbying publicly against them.
Now, said Mr. Abramson, "There are people active in the American Jewish community and in the Likud party in Israel who have come together and feel there's nothing wrong with not observing the consensus on security issues."
"I do not recall it happening in such an open way," said Mrs. Cardin of the challenge to Israeli policies. The result, she said, is confusion and "a waste of human and financial resources" in the pro-Israel lobbying effort.
Leaders of the Orthodox Union, which represents nearly 1,000 Orthodox Jewish congregations nationwide, have pressed members of Congress to place aid for the Palestinians in escrow and published a letter urging Mr. Rabin to slow the peace process.
"How can we silently witness the pain of a citizenry whose national fabric and vital interests are being torn asunder?" asks the letter from the Orthodox Union's president and vice president.
The Rabin government and the Clinton administration view aid to the Palestinians as crucial to sustaining the peace process. So far, their arguments have prevailed with Congress, which has refrained from cutting off aid or imposing what the Clinton administration views as impossible conditions.
But comments earlier this month by Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, showed that the ZOA's lobbying effort was making an impact.
Clinton administration reports on Palestinian adherence to peace terms, Mr. Gilman said, "can best be described as a mixture of naivete and optimism, perhaps born of a desire by the administration to see matters not as they are, but as they wish them to be."