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Jewish Groups Feel "Squeezed" Between Sharon's Policies And U.S. War On Terrorism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 2001

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and the U.S. war on terrorism which is now under way, the American Jewish organizational community "showed every indication of being squeezed in the days ahead," reports The Forward (Sept. 21, 2001).  

At issue, it notes, "was whether the planned anti-terrorism coalition would view Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat as an ally or a target. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon was doing everything he could to paint Mr. Arafat as being outside the anti-terrorism camp. Mr. Arafat, for his part, was trying desperately to get inside before the barricades went up. ... Sharon's aides made it plain almost as soon as the World Trade Center was attacked ... that they viewed the planned American war on terrorism as an opportunity to ratchet up their own pressure on Mr. Arafat. President Bush was pushing in just the opposite direction: Eager to enlist moderate Arab states in his coalition, he was pressing Mr. Sharon to begin cease-fire talks with Mr. Arafat. ... It seemed clear that Mr. Sharon's goal of keeping the Palestinians outside the pale was finding few friends in the administration."  

In a move that The Forward characterized as one "that seemed likely to displease the administration even further," Sharon took his case to "the American public in unusually blunt terms. Addressing a group of Jewish community leaders in a teleconference with reporters invited to listen in, Mr. Sharon repeated his comparison of Mr. Arafat to bin Laden and declared that the `coalition against terror should struggle against all terrorist organizations' — and `must include the terrorist organization led by Arafat."'  

Several participants in the teleconference, which was organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, privately expressed surprise and discomfort at what they called Sharon's "extreme" and "undiplomatic language."  

According to The Forward, "Several participants ... privately voiced anger at the fact that the teleconference organizers had invited the press to listen in, saying the participants had not been informed that the conference was public, and that they might have behaved differently if they had known. `I might have spoken up if I had known,' said the head of one Jewish organization. My silence could be read as assent.' Nonetheless, all participants who agreed to be interviewed on the record said they would defend Mr. Sharon's position."  

The position advanced by Sharon was questioned by many in Israel: "Mr. Sharon found himself at loggerheads with both the Bush administration and his foreign minister. Mr. Peres was demanding that his meeting with Mr. Arafat be allowed to proceed, accusing Mr. Sharon of placing Israel in an anti-American `rejection front' ... While Mr. Sharon said he would `do his best' to help facilitate Arab participation in an American-led coalition, most analysts believed that he would not follow in the footsteps of restraint shown by his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir, who refrained from retaliating against Iraq missile attacks in January 1991. Indeed, Mr. Sharon at the time was one of the harshest critics of Mr. Shamir's policy of restraint."  

Editorially, The Forward stated, "To declare war on Yasser Arafat would drive Egypt and Saudi Arabia out of the coalition and move the looming war toward a clash of civilizations."  

Douglas Bloomfield, writing in Washington Jewish Week (Sept. 27, 2001), points out that, "The Israeli prime minister misread the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington as an opportunity to intensify pressure on the Palestinians by tying Arafat to Osama bin Laden and by taking advantage of the sudden new U.S. preoccupation with terrorism. The Palestinian Authority president, in contrast, responded quickly and shrewdly to the dramatically changed realities in Washington. ... Bush has urged Sharon to `seize the moment' because he believes the events of the past weeks could `shake up attitudes of the Middle East.' But Sharon failed to grasp the world-changing nature of what had happened, and his attempt to use the bombings to build more support for his war against Arafat and further ostracize the Palestinian leader only aggravated an anxious administration that had been exceptionally friendly. Officials began to question whether Sharon was looking for ways to end the violence or excuses to continue low intensity warfare and avoid negotiations. When a reporter suggested to (Secretary of State) Powell that Sharon was not acting like an ally, the secretary did not object."

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