Arabs, Jews in Baltimore hopeful about settlement

September 01, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

They all hover just on the edge of hope.

The leader of one Jewish organization in Baltimore called it an "unprecedented breakthrough toward peace."

A Palestinian prominent in Baltimore's Arab-American community declared it "a first step that hopefully will lead to settlement of a problem that has been haunting the whole world."

This is typical of the local reaction to the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that could lead to Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory and the beginnings of Palestinian self-rule. It is generally positive.

Nearly everyone spoken to was optimistic that the impasse of a quarter-century's duration -- created by Israel's conquest of the West Bank territories and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war -- had been broken at last.

There was also some consensus on the probable factors that moved the two sides toward each other. These include the rise of violent extremism in the Gaza Strip, as expressed through the fundamentalist organization, Hamas; the weakened financial and political condition of the PLO; and the need of the Labor government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to deliver on its promise to bring peace to the territories.

"As I read it, the Israelis have recognized that the window of opportunity for an agreement was getting shorter by the day as the sense of an Islamic upheaval has grown, and Hamas has achieved support," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"A number of people who have called me were very concerned over the weekend, but generally everybody is looking hopeful."

The Hamas factor

Elias Shomali, a trustee of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, who was born in the West Bank Arab village of Beit Sahur, also pointed to the impact Hamas has had in the current outcome. "There is no question it is a factor," he said. "Israel had to react and deal with the PLO because of what they have seen as the rise of Hamas."

But he also said he believed the "Israeli government was committed to peace when it came into power, and had to show they have accomplished something."

Dr. Theodore A. Baramki, a Palestinian physician who was born in Jerusalem when it was a part of Palestine and who has practiced medicine in Baltimore for the past 33 years, believes the agreement was for the most part the product of sheer fatigue.

"Both sides are tired and exhausted," he said. "They are like two boxers in the last rounds. They are really tired. They want peace."

A secondary factor, he said, "is that the PLO is becoming more realistic in its acceptance of the existence of Israel." And, he added, they also "realize their best chance is with the Labor Party, that they won't get such a chance with Likud if they come back into power in a few years."

Dr. Baramki's initial impression of the agreement, he said, was "positive -- if it eventually leads to self-determination in all the occupied territories. . . . If this first step ends up in a dead-end road, it will be tragic. If it tends to completion of the autonomy that was discussed in the Camp David agreement, if it leads to that, then we are really reaching toward peace."

Jewish support

Support for the step taken by Israel on Monday was widespread throughout the Jewish community in the area, which has a much larger representation here than do the Palestinians.

Lois Rosenfield, the executive secretary of the American Jewish Committee's Baltimore office, said: "There are varied opinions among the Jewish community, but by and large we all want peace. I believe this is a great breakthrough."

Rabbi Ira Schiffer of the Beth Am synagogue predicted that his congregation "will be supportive of the current efforts," while Rabbi Mark Loeb of the more conservative Beth El congregation praised the courage and statesmanship of the Israeli leadership.

He cited a number of "reality factors" that he believed made the entire agreement possible: "[First] the Israeli people are willing to undertake some risks for peace because the status quo is less and less acceptable. Second, the PLO is in financial and tactical difficulty with its own cause and people. It is being outflanked on the right [by Hamas] and it's strapped for funds" as a consequence of having supported Iraq in the Persian Gulf war.

Also enthusiastic about the breakthrough is George Hess, a vice president of the Joseph Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds.

"What we hear is very, very positive. People I talk with almost daily in one part of Israel or another are more optimistic than in many years," he said. "There is a real sense that peace is right around the corner."

Some pessimism

Among the apparently more pessimistic leaders of the Jewish community are Jim Schiller, the Baltimore based national president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Dr. Louis L. Kaplan, the executive vice president of the Meyerhoff funds.

"The ZOA has been on record as opposing any dialogue with the PLO for Israel, and with the United States," said Mr. Schiller. "Our position on the PLO hasn't changed."

Dr. Kaplan, speaking just before the Israeli Cabinet endorsed the agreement, said:

"I'm not ready to believe it. I'm not sure of PLO moderation. I don't believe Arafat is to be trusted."

Dr. George Karkar, another Jerusalem-born Palestinian physician who has been practicing internal medicine in Baltimore for the past 22 years, said he was optimistic about Monday's development. But with his compatriot, Dr. Baramki, he said he believed it would not come to much if this -- self-rule in Jericho and the Gaza Strip -- was all that was on offer from Israel.

"This is just a small portion of the West Bank. That will not be enough to bring long-term peace. This should be the beginning of the negotiations, not the closing."

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