TOP STORY: ISRAELI ELECTIONS: Netanyahu aide says peace process will continue

c. 1996 Religion News Service

NEW YORK (RNS)-Israel's new Likud government has signaled American Jewish leaders that it does not intend to scuttle the Middle East peace process or roll back recent gains achieved in the Jewish state by Judaism's non-Orthodox movements.

Speaking Thursday (June 13) to members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Zalman Shoval, a key adviser to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the new government"accepts the reality"of a peace process he termed"irreversible." But he added that Palestinian expectations were"raised too high"by the pace of the concessions made by the outgoing Labor government. Those expectations, Shoval said,"now must be brought back to earth." Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has repeatedly said he expects the peace process to end with the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Netanyahu opposes both.

Shoval-who as Likud's international affairs envoy is the highest-ranking Netanyahu aide to address American Jewish leaders since the May 29 Israeli election-said Palestinians"will learn"that they cannot expect to get all they want."Compromise is not a one-way street,"said Shoval, who is said to be in line to become Israel's new ambassador to Washington. He last held that post from 1990 to 1992, and was a familiar face on American TV during the Persian Gulf War when Iraq fired missiles at Israel.

American Jewish leaders, like the 5.6-million member American Jewish community, are generally liberal and have been strong backers of the dovish"land-for-peace"policy of defeated Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his predecessor, the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.

Since the Israeli election, several of the more liberal American Jewish leaders have said Netanyahu's announced hardline approach to peace negotiations will result in a breakdown of the talks. They fear that in turn would cause American Jews to psychologically-and perhaps financially-distance themselves from Israel.

Gary Rubin, executive director of the Jewish group Americans for Peace Now, has said he will lobby Congress for a reduction in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel if Netanyahu makes good on his promise to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians want turned over to them.

Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, has said that if Netanyahu blocks progress in the peace process,"Jewish continuity is likely to be a big loser"because it will further alienate young Jews already drifting away from Jewish religious and communal involvement.

Shoval's remarks this week were meant to calm those fears, just as his comments on Netanyahu's attitude toward the official acceptance of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel were intended to allay American Jewish concerns on that issue as well.

American Jews-both the community and its leadership-are overwhelming non-Orthodox in their religious practices. Many of the non-Orthodox American Jewish leaders have expressed concern over the major role Israel's Orthodox religious parties are expected to play in the new Netanyahu government.

They fear that the Orthodox parties, in return for their support of the secular Netanyahu, will demand a rollback of the legal gains the Reform and Conservative movements have made in Israel the last four years under Labor leadership. Until then, Orthodox Judaism had virtually total control over Jewish religious expression in Israel.

Those gains include court decisions that for the first time opened Israel's regional religious councils to non-Orthodox participation and paved the way for the acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism and the inclusion of non-Orthodox religious education in Israeli public schools.

Shoval-who is not Orthodox-said there would be"no return to the 1992 status quo,"meaning the situation that existed prior to Labor's ascendancy to power and its championing of non-Orthodox Jewish religious expression.

Shoval said he was speaking"on the authority of Mr. Netanyahu." When asked to comment further on the issue, Shoval declined, insisting he had said all that was necessary.

Despite the concern among non-Orthodox American Jewish leaders over the religious pluralism question, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Presidents' Conference, said he believed the matter was essentially a non-issue for the average American Jew."It has no practical impact on them unless they plan on moving to Israel,"said Hoenlein. Of far greater concern to American Jews, he said, is the Middle East peace process.

Shoval said the message of the Israeli election was that the nation's Jewish population wanted the peace process to continue, but was unhappy with the continued Palestinian terrorism and the way the Labor government handled the matter.

He noted that despite the overall closeness of the vote-Netanyahu edged Peres by less than one percentage point-Israeli Jews gave the Likud leader an 11-point victory. Only the inclusion of the Israeli Arab vote made it close.

Underscoring the gulf between American Jewish liberal leaders and Israel's new government, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said at Thursday's meeting that he was"somewhat uncomfortable"hearing Shoval make a distinction between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

Foxman said American Jews take particular pride in Israel being a democracy.

Shoval shot back that although Israeli Arabs are entitled to the same rights as Israeli Jews,"Israel is the state of the Jews"and that the recent election gains made by the Orthodox religious parties showed that even non-Orthodox Israeli Jews want the nation's Jewish character to remain strong.