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Presidents’ Conference Criticized for Unauthorized Support of Israeli Move Against P.A. Representative

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July-August 2002

Early in July, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement justifying the Israeli police closure of the office of Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Jerusalem and president of Al Quds University. The closure, ordered by Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau, a leader of the right wing within Likud, stirred up a storm of protest from the Israeli center and left.  

The statement by the Conference of Presidents, titled “Facts About Nusseibeh Belie Image,” was issued by conference chairman Mortimer Zuckerman and executive vice-chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.  

The Forward (July 19, 2002) reports that, “Several liberal groups complained that the 52-member conference has effectively aligned itself with the most right-wing elements of the Israeli cabinet by challenging the moderate reputation of Nusseibeh, who recently organized a petition against suicide bombings and has called for Palestinians to renounce the right of return to Israel. Leaders of other member groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and ARZA/World Union, the Reform Zionist organization, slammed conference leaders for failing to secure a consensus before issuing the statement.”  

Israel’s opposition leader, Meretz Party head Yossi Sarid, complained that the conference’s web site contained an anti-Nusseibeh quote that was falsely attributed to him. The web site claimed that Sarid had told “an interviewer” that Nusseibeh should have been jailed for 10 years over allegations that he attempted to help guide Iraqi missile attacks on Israel in 1991. Nusseibeh denied the charges.  

Sarid said of the alleged quote: “It’s a lie. Nusseibeh is a personal friend of mine. He is the most moderate, courageous leader in the Palestinian camp. I’m furious and provoked by the Presidents Conference. They didn’t ask me about it.”  

A dispute also arose over Hoenlein’s claim to The Forward that during a July 12 meeting with conference leaders, Israeli cabinet minister Matan Vilnai “justified” the closure of Nusseibeh’s offices. Several people who asked not to be identified told The Forward that during the meeting, Vilnai, a former Israeli deputy chief of staff, did not justify the closure but, in fact, criticized it.  

The Labor Zionist alliance, the National Committee for Labor Israel, and Americans for Peace Now all strongly criticized the conference leaders for what they described as an attempt to discredit Nusseibeh. A letter from the Labor Zionist Alliance and Americans for Peace Now accuses the conference of ignoring Nusseibeh’s moderate record, thereby serving “the factional interests of the most extreme elements of Israel’s cabinet.”  

Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Committee for Labor Israel, stated: “There are some elements among Israeli leadership who really don’t want to see a viable Palestinian state. I think the closure of the office is merely one example of that mode of thinking.”  

Lewis Roth, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said that the office’s closure and the conference statement are both “a desperate attempt by people on the far right in Israel and here in the U.S. to undercut any attempt or possibility of Israel and Palestinians getting back to the negotiating table by attempting to discredit someone who is perhaps the most moderate of all Palestinian leaders.”  

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, said that the conference “should acknowledge that there is clearly no consensus on this matter. There is a process necessary to derive consensus, and it wasn’t existent in this case ― and it should have been.”  

The White House criticized Israel’s closing of the Palestinian office, calling it a “troubling event” that “does not contribute” to peace or the Palestinian reforms the President has called for.  

Writing in The New York Times (July 15, 2002), columnist Anthony Lewis declares: “Mr. Nusseibeh has been a voice for peace over many years. In 1988, before a two-state solution was policy on either side, he told me that Palestinians should say to Israel: ‘We don’t want to destroy your state, but we want our own state alongside. Last fall he said Palestinians should give up their claim of a right to return to homes in Israel. In short, he is the perfect example of the new kind of leadership, peaceful and pragmatic, that Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush have said the Palestinians must have before there can be political negotiations on an end to the conflict. Why target him? The answer is that important elements in the Israeli government do not want a two-state solution and do not want political negotiations with a reformed Palestinian leadership. They prefer the present situation: the West Bank occupied or tightly controlled by Israel...”  

On July 22, reports The New York Times (July 23, 2002), “Israeli security officials reached a face-saving compromise with ... Sari Nusseibeh, to allow him to reopen his office.”

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