Focus: America's Jews are fretful, but Bill's going anyway

There was a time when the vociferous pro-Israel lobby would have made it impossible for a US president to visit Gaza. David Usborne reports on a change in mood
YASSER ARAFAT loomed from a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on Thursday. Wearing his customary headscarf and military tunic, he was pointing his index finger and looked vaguely menacing. A headline thundered: "Yasser Arafat has pledged that on 4 May 1999 he will declare a Palestinian state and make Jerusalem its capital. It's wrong. It's dangerous. And it violates the peace agreements."

Placed by a New Jersey-based group called The Committee for a Secure Peace, the advertisement made no mention of President Bill Clinton or of his visit this weekend to the Middle East and on Monday to the Palestinian National Council in Gaza. But the message was clear: the romancing of Mr Arafat by the Clinton administration has gone too far; the security of Israel must always come first.

That American Jews might be fretful about Mr Clinton's trip is understandable. There are many who fear that the mere fact of his travelling to Gaza, arriving by presidential helicopter at Mr Arafat's brand new Gaza airport, and then proceeding to address the Council, will confer recognition on the putative Palestinian state even before its birth. In the politics of symbolism it will indeed be an important moment.

The President knows this, and yet he is going anyway. What has happened, you might ask, to the vaunted American Jewish lobby, that it is allowing the visit to happen? And why, actually, have the expressions of concern here been mostly muted? Sure, there was the Times advertisement, but The Committee for a Secure Peace is a little-known group, hardly at the core of American Jewish power.

There is one tempting conclusion - that after five decades of wielding influence in Washington totally out of proportion to their minuscule demographics, American Jews are beginning to lose some of their political voice. This may be so, but it should not be overstated. There is a good reason why Fortune magazine last week named the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the most aggressive of all the Jewish groups, the second most effective lobbying organisation in all of Washington. It ranked No 2 last year also.

More important to understand is the reality that, according to successive polls, Jews in the United States overwhelmingly support the peace process that was born in Oslo in 1993. Thus, while they may dislike the notion of a Palestinian state, they accept that its creation is the price that must be paid for peace. If that means that Clinton must go to Gaza, then so be it - on condition, of course, that Arafat honours the commitments he has made, most recently under the Wye accords signed at the White House in October.

"We want the President's visit to go well," Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, insisted last week. "What we need to know is whether the Palestinian Authority and Chairman Arafat, who are the major beneficiaries of it, are going to use it to demonstrate their appreciation. Will they act in compliance with the Wye accords or, as in the last few days, are they are going to continue to incite violence?"

Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at John Hopkins University, also sees support for the trip. "The leadership of the American Jewish community is committed to the peace process, and Clinton's visit to Gaza is consistent with shoring up Arafat and making the process a reality," he noted. But he points to something else also - most American Jews vote for the Democrats and like President Clinton. "Jewish leaders know that Clinton is on the edge and tottering, and they are not interested in attacking him at this moment. Though many of them certainly have private misgivings, they are unwilling to speak out publicly."

NONE OF this is to say that the landscape of American Jewry has not been changing. Indeed, when Oslo was in its infancy, Aipac and the Conference of Presidents opposed the process and shunned the late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The change of heart since those days has come with an almost total turnover in their leaderships, however. Aipac can still throw a good punch; when the administration threatened early this year to get tough on Israel over withdrawals from the West Bank, it corralled no fewer than 81 senators into writing letters of protest to Mr Clinton. And this year it has raised more money for itself than ever before. But its base of support, especially among young Jews, has been waning.

The reason is simple: the issue of Israel's security and its right to exist no longer galvanises Jews in America as it did. "At this point in time," suggests Professor Ginsberg, "they don't on the whole have as strong a commitment to Israel as their parents' generation did." Instead, the professor says, they are more concerned about domestic policy issues in America and, indeed, about the future security and existence of their own community in this country. There are plenty of Jews in America who are more worried about the 60 per cent of American Jews who are marrying non-Jews than they are about the 13 per cent withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank.

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