U.S. Jewish Leaders to Mull Pullout Plan

NEW YORK - A special session of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations convenes today in New York to discuss a proposal to publish a statement in support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

A bitter and contentious debate among the American Jewish leaders is expected. Senior Jewish officials in New York said yesterday that the Israeli government has taken a keen interest in the session, and has arranged for Israel's ambassador in Washington, Danny Ayalon, to give a speech to the leaders.

The proposal to publish a statement backing Sharon's policy was brought to the Conference several months ago by the Anti-Defamation League. It engendered serious controversy within the Conference between those in favor of the statement, and those vehemently opposed to making a public declaration of support at this point.

Ayalon has been lobbying intensively behind the scenes over the past few months to achieve unanimous support for Sharon's policy at the Conference. His address today will essentially be a plea to the presidents to unite in a declaration that will underscore their support for the disengagement plan in particular.

The ambassador, who confirmed yesterday that he will appear at the Conference, told Haaretz: "I intend to explain to the leaders of the Jewish organization the benefit that disengagement from Gaza will bring to Israel in many areas."

Ayalon will also stress that the disengagement plan enjoys the approval of the American government, the White House and Congress.

It is not unusual for Israel's ambassador to appear at the Conference of Presidents. However, Ayalon's appearance is perceived as a unique effort on the part of the Israeli government to avoid the embarrassment to the prime minister if he is perceived as illegitimate in the eyes of the American Jewish community, particularly since the umbrella organization's express mission is to guarantee American Jewry's support for the governments of Israel.

"The results of Tuesday's Knesset vote has weakened the position of Sharon's supporters in the Conference," a leader of a major Jewish organization in favor of the declaration told Haaretz yesterday.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, resolutely defended his position yesterday, saying it was the conference's responsibility to demonstrate immediate and unequivocal support for Sharon and the disengagement plan. In the event that the Conference rejects his initiative, Foxman has drafted an alternative declaration, which he intends to ask Jewish organizations to sign independently, outside the framework of the Conference.

Reform Movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffe stated recently that the Conference of Presidents could not evade its traditional role and avoid an explicit expression of support for the Israeli government.

Several senior Jewish officials estimated yesterday that some of the Conferences' participants planned to suggest postponing a decision until after the upcoming Knesset vote, slated for October 25.

Seymour Reich, a former chair of the Conference, said yesterday that he thought waiting for the 25th was not a desirable option. "The Conference should have declared support months ago," he said.

In contrast, Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, circulated a document among Conference members explaining why the organization should deny support to Sharon. Klein, who is considered a spokesperson of the right-wing of American Jewry, told Haaretz yesterday: "I will do everything to prevent publication of a declaration of support for Sharon. The Conference exists to support Israel, not the prime minister."