What Sharon Forgot to Tell the Jews

For more than a year now, Israel has had a hard time explaining to the Jewish community the changes in Israeli policy brought on by the adoption of the disengagement plan.

WASHINGTON - When aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began planning his trip to the United States, they included a visit to Los Angeles, where Sharon was supposed to spend time with the city's large Jewish community. But by the time the plan got to the execution stage, it was decided to forgo Los Angeles, for lack of sufficient time. The American Jewish community will have to make do with a meeting between Sharon and several leaders of major organizations at his hotel in Washington.

Inadequate time was the reason given a year ago, when Sharon last visited the American capital - the visit that led to the dramatic understandings with the administration on the disengagement plan and what America would give Israel in exchange - for his failure to meet with members of the Jewish community.

Throughout the years of Sharon's tenure as prime minister, he has appeared at only one large Jewish gathering in the U.S. - the AIPAC conference in the spring of 2001 - and has never flown to the U.S. to address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. Indeed, the most recent visit to New York - the center of Jewish life in America - by an Israeli prime minister was in December 2001.

Contact in recent years between the largest Jewish Diaspora community and the prime minister of Israel has taken place via recorded video greetings that Sharon sends to Jewish conferences, a few conference calls and receptions for Jewish leadership delegations arriving in Jerusalem.

In the past there have been Israeli leaders who were not keen on maintaining the connection with American Jewry, but this time it is more than issues of friendship and honor. For more than a year now, Israel has had a hard time explaining to the Jewish community the changes in Israeli policy brought on by the adoption of the disengagement plan. Someone also forgot to tell the Jews on the other side of the ocean about the renewal of diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians. Many members of the Jewish leadership have complained in the past year that they are not receiving clear messages from Israel, and that it is difficult for them to explain to their memberships what has changed in Israeli policy and what implications this change has had on the activities of American Jewry.

The American Jewish community reacted to the outbreak of the second intifada with an intense outpouring of warmth, financial aid and support for the State of Israel and its citizens. Beyond that, it embraced the two key diplomatic messages transmitted by Israel: one, that there is no justification for Israeli concessions as long as the Palestinians continue to commit acts of terror; and two, that there is no partner for negotiations on the Palestinian side. The disengagement plan eliminated the first message, while Arafat's death eliminated the second.

Such a radical transformation of diplomatic strategy calls for a great deal of work: personal conversations, meetings with community leaders and mainly, a direct appeal by the high-ranking leadership in Israel to the Diaspora Jewish community. Not only have these actions not been carried out satisfactorily, but opponents of disengagement have been very active and have dispatched emissaries, cabinet ministers and Knesset members to America to speak out against the new diplomatic plan.

The results of the confusion in the Jewish community over the past year could be seen in the field. Jewish organizational leadership - the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations - had a hard time passing a resolution in support of disengagement, and the Jewish public did not know what to ask of its representatives in Congress.

One congressional aide to a Jewish congressman recently noted that when the time came to formulate an opinion on the granting of special aid to Palestinians, he came up against a dilemma: While official Israeli representatives were speaking in favor of aiding Palestinians, his Jewish constituents were still asking their representative to vote against, on the grounds that "there is no partner."

A new study released on the eve of the Bush-Sharon meeting indicates that the American Jewish community's period of adjustment to the new diplomatic reality is nearly complete, and that American Jews now disclose significant support for disengagement. The study, conducted by Professor Steven Cohen for Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance, found that the percentage of supporters of the plan is nearly three times that of its opponents. Among the major Jewish organizations, as well - with the exception of right-wing and Orthodox organizations - unqualified support for Israel's new policy is now being voiced.

But the lining up of the American Jewish community behind Israel's plans has been overdue and sluggish. A more appropriate approach by Israel toward American Jews could have spared them much confusion and harnessed them to Israel's aid at an earlier stage. Some would say that in an era of good relations between the leaders, and of a sympathetic administration in Washington, there is no need for battalions of American Jews fighting to have Israel's positions accepted. This may be true in the immediate stage, but in the long run Israel will have a strong need for help from the community. Aside from that, American Jews, who feel they share a common fate with Israel, want to be part of the historic process and contribute to its success. They only want someone to talk with them.