WASHINGTON – Major American Jewish organizations are praising President Bush's support for Israeli plans to withdraw from Gaza (search) and maintain some settlements in the West Bank (search) — but a few groups are criticizing him.
Jewish voters are being courted by both Republicans and Democrats, but many Jewish groups see little difference on Israel between Bush and challenger John Kerry.
The president was blunter than his predecessors in supporting Israel on settlements, borders and the Palestinian refugees' right to return to homes they lost in Israel's 1948 war for independence. Arabs are outraged, saying it confirms their view that the United States isn't an unbiased go-between in the conflict.
Among American Jewish groups, Bush's critics are few but vocal. Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now (search), linked to the Israeli group Peace Now, says Bush scuttled chances for the United States to be an effective peace broker.
The Zionist Organization of America (search), on the other hand, condemned the whole idea of removing Jewish settlements, saying it rewards terrorism and drives Jews from their homes.
By contrast, the Union for Reform Judaism (search) supports dismantling settlements and also considers Bush's position on Palestinian refugees "right and also practical," its president, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, said.
"There's a feeling in the American Jewish community that if the Arab world insists on the right to return, there will never be peace," he told The Associated Press.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (search), called Bush's new position, set down in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "a bold and historic step." In 2002, Bush broke taboos by endorsing Palestinian statehood, and now he has broken taboos by saying the Palestinians will not get everything they want, Foxman said.
"I believe we'll get closer to peace when we're politically honest," he said.
Foxman said he sees overwhelming support for Bush and Sharon in the American Jewish community but expects Israel to be just one of many issues for Jewish voters in the November presidential election.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said "probably it's a mistake" to expect a unified American Jewish view.
"I think what you'll find is perhaps a consensus that terrorism should be fought and that it's best for Israel if some way is found to end the stalemate. Exactly how to do that and which policy is best, I don't think there is consensus in the American Jewish community, as there is not in Israel itself," he said.
Tamara Wittes, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, said Jewish Americans are concentrated in some key states, including Florida, and that for many, supporting Israel is part of maintaining Jewish identity. However, she cautioned against seeing Bush's stance solely in terms of American Jews.
She said evangelical Christians, who are strongly pro-Israel, may have greater influence on the Bush White House than do Jews.
David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (search), said Democrats can count on 60 percent of Jewish voters, and Republicans on 20 percent, with the rest up for grabs. Jewish Americans have a greater impact on elections than their share of the population - 2 to 2.5 percent - because many are politically active, he added.
Although U.S. Jewish opinion isn't monolithic, "my impression is that there is very strong support for the results of the Bush-Sharon meeting," he said, adding that he believes most American Jews feel Israel knows best what it needs to do for security.
The American Jewish Committee applauded Bush for backing the Gaza pullout, while Rabbi Hersh M. Ginsberg, chairman of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (search), said "anything that leads to peace, even if we have to give away land, is acceptable. We don't want any bloodshed."