Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and Steve Austria (R-Ohio) are calling on President Obama to press Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace negotiations and to end anti-Israel incitement by the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, J Street, the controversial pro-peace-process advocacy group, is blasting the congressmen’s effort as too single-issue focused and unfairly hard on Abbas.
Last week J Street released a statement objecting to a letter co-authored by the congressmen and soon to go out to President Obama. J Street contends that the letter, for which the congressmen are collecting signatures, focuses inordinately on incitement at the expense of other issues. In a telephone interview on Tuesday, J Street staffer Amy Spitalnick told The Jewish Standard that the organization disagrees with what the staffer characterized as the letter’s implicit blame of Abbas “in the context of this horrific Itamar massacre.”
The congressmen’s letter references the murders, earlier this month, of five members of the Fogel family, who lived in the west bank settlement of Itamar, and condemns the PA’s current refusal engage in peace talks and to cease incitement.
A draft of the letter, released by Rothman, reads, in part: “We are sure that you share our disappointment in President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to withdraw from peace talks in October of last year and his stubborn refusal to reengage as a willing partner for peace with Israel…. Unfortunately, we live in a time when [a group called] the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades [of Imad Mughniyeh] will rush to take credit for the horrific, inhuman, and brutal attack in Itamar against the Fogel family, including three of their children, an 11-year-old, 4-year-old, and 3-month-old. This must serve as a wakeup call that the current state of affairs is dangerous and unacceptable.”
Rothman, in a telephone interview with the Standard on Monday, said the goal of his and Austria’s letter is two-fold: to urge Obama to press Abbas to resume peace talks without preconditions and to end the culture of incitement, which he charges the PA has failed to do.
“The thrust of our letter … is to not only point out how libelous and vile we find the PA’s failures to confront incitement to violence against Jews and Israelis by members of the PA and their sympathizers, but also to condemn the PA’s refusal to come to the negotiating table to work out the terms for a two-state solution,” he said. Regarding J Street’s statement, Rothman added, “Curiously, J Street makes no mention of the PA’s failure to return to the negotiating table. I find that shocking and inexcusable, especially since J Street speaks of [wanting] a two-state resolution to the conflict.”
In its statement, J Street characterized the congressmen’s appeal as one-sided, disproportionately focused on incitement, and misleading.
The J Street statement reads, in part: “In our view, it is preferable for Congressional statements on the conflict to address the actions and words of both parties…. To frame the current impasse in the peace process as the result simply of instances of incitement by Palestinians ignores other actions that impede peace, specifically ongoing and intensifying Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory…. J Street objects to the letter’s use of the horrifying murder of an Israeli family…. To highlight this act … and to do so without also mentioning President Abbas’ quick condemnation is misleading.”
J Street’s Spitalnick told the Standard that although J Street “is firmly opposed to incitement,” the organization felt Rothman’s letter was disproportionately focused on it.
“To make this issue of incitement the only issue undermining prospects for peace does a disservice to actually achieving a peace agreement,” she said. “Another important thing … is that the letter implicitly lays the blame on President Abbas, even in the context of this horrific Itamar massacre, for incitement. This is a leader that has been applauded in conjunction with Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad by Israeli and American security forces for work to root out violence.”
Rothman fired back against J Street’s defense of Abbas, saying, “Notwithstanding the fact Abbas publicly declared the murders in Itamar to be inhuman and without justification, he did not condemn his fellow Palestinians for taking credit for such a despicable and murderous act.”
Spitalnick responded, “Not that I’m defending Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades – but then they said they didn’t take credit for it. So the facts are very iffy still.” (According to the Jerusalem Post, officials of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – which is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization – “denied that the attack came from within their ranks, telling Al Hayat that they are not connected to the Imad Mugniyeh group.”)
Spitalnick added that J Street supports another congressional letter, sent to Obama last week, that called for maintaining current levels of foreign aid to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and for U.S. leadership in promoting a two-state solution. That letter, which had 116 signatories, was co-authored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).
Rothman also spoke about the U.S. State Department’s recent, explicit condemnation of a March 13 ceremony in a town square in Al-Bireh, near Ramallah, for Dalal Mughrabi. The square was named and a plaque dedicated in memory of Mughrabi, who directed the hijacking of two buses that resulted in the murders of 37 Israelis, including 13 children. Members of Abbas’ Fatah faction were reportedly on hand.
“In my opinion that’s just the latest in dozens of examples over past several years of the PA not taking sufficient action to publicly condemn or prevent the glorification and celebration of the murderers of Israeli men, women, and children,” Rothman said.