Reform movement and AIPAC stake out opposing positions on penalizing Palestinians
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Reform movement and AIPAC stake out opposing positions on penalizing Palestinians

WASHINGTON ““ Two major Jewish groups are at odds over the prospect of penalties for the Palestinians as a result of their enhanced U.N. status.

In recent weeks, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has backed two congressional bids to at least shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington. That is in response to the United Nations General Assembly’s overwhelming vote on November 29, which granted Palestinians non-member observer state status.

Conversely, the Reform movement has urged President Barack Obama emphatically not to retaliate against the Palestinians, JTA has learned. The Reform movement also has resolved to oppose the shuttering of the PLO office.

The lines dividing the two organizations are not necessarily set in stone. The Reform movement has suggested that it might back penalties should the Palestinians use their new status to charge Israel in international courts. An AIPAC official suggested to JTA that the organization would wait and see whether the Palestinians go to international courts before it decides its next legislative moves.

Still, the markedly different tone in AIPAC’s call to its activists to back the proposed congressional penalties and the Reform movement’s plea to the president to ignore such calls could portend a split within the pro-Israel community’s center.

An AIPAC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not specify its differences with the Reform movement’s view. But the official noted that the congressional letter to Obama that AIPAC backed this month urges a resumption of peace talks in addition to calling for the closing of the PLO office and a suspension of funding to some U.N. affiliates.

“Everyone in the pro-Israel community should be pleased that a solid bipartisan majority signed a pro-peace talks letter in support of direct talks and opposed to attempts to delegitimize Israel,” the official said.

Israel has made clear that the Palestinians’ U.N. moves should have consequences. It has announced a flurry of new building projects in eastern Jerusalem and the west bank, and diverted millions of dollars in taxes earmarked for the Palestinian Authority to Israeli utility providers that have been dunning the Palestinians for payment.

Recently, reporters for Jewish media asked Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, his view on congressional proposals to penalize the Palestinians. His answer suggested pique not just at the Palestinians’ enhanced U.N. status but also at the speech by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas that preceded the vote.

“We think that the Palestinians when they violate agreements, when they declare that Israel is a war criminal or when they describe Israel as a war criminal for defending itself against thousands of terrorist rockets without ever condemning those rockets, we think they should be held to task for that,” Oren said. “We do not think they should be given a free pass.”

But the leaders of the largest American Jewish denomination have called for restraint from the U.S. in responding to the Palestinians’ U.N. bid.

In a December 14 letter to Obama, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and the CEO of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Steve Fox, noted a December 3 resolution that had been approved by the boards of a number of Reform organizations.

The statement, the rabbis note in the letter, condemns the Palestinians for moving ahead with the advanced status but also “urges Congress to eschew any action that would serve as an impediment” to resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The letter from the Reform leaders to Obama attaches the December 3 resolution, which opposes funding cuts to the Palestinians, to the United Nations and “any reduction in the currently recognized Palestinian diplomatic presence.”

The resolution also “opposes” Israel’s retaliatory plans to build Jewish homes in eastern Jerusalem and the west bank, and supports “appropriate measures if the Palestinians use their new status at the U.N. to initiate formal action against Israel via the International Criminal Court or other agency.”

The Reform movement made the December 3 resolution public, but the December 14 letter to Obama was released to a JTA reporter by mistake. A spokesman for the group said the failure to publicize the letter to the president was an oversight, noting that it was sent on the day when the nation was preoccupied with the massacre of first graders the Newtown, Conn.

Some dovish Jewish groups, including J Street and Americans for Peace Now, also have made clear their opposition to penalties for the Palestinians.

In a fundraising letter, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, counted the 239 signatures on the AIPAC-backed congressional letter sent December 21 as a victory for his movement, noting particularly that only 67 Democrats signed.

“We’re seeing the impact in Congress where two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus refused to sign AIPAC’s latest letter calling for closing the PLO’s diplomatic mission in Washington,” Ben-Ami said in the letter. “Such letters used to be signed by four out of every five Members of Congress. Not any more.”

A slate of recent AIPAC-backed letters indeed have scored signatures in the mid-300s, but letters scoring in the mid-200s are not exceptional, and the new letter still was signed by a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The AIPAC official acknowledged that the organization had hoped for more signatures but added that the letter was circulated toward the end of a congressional session – and the session was focused on finding a compromise on spending and taxes.

“There’s a confidence that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Howard Berman would have gotten more signatures had there been time,” the official said, referring respectively to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Republican chairwoman and the Democratic ranking member who together initiated the letter. Both are leaving their top committee posts, Berman after having lost an intra-party re-election battle in his home district and Ros-Lehtinen as a result of Republican caucus rules limiting the tenures of committee heads.

On its website, AIPAC touted the congressional letter as a key element of its legislative agenda.

“The Palestinians must face consequences,” AIPAC said. “The United States should continue to press the Palestinians to refrain from such harmful actions and outline repercussions if they move ahead, such as closing the PLO office in Washington.”

The letter proposes the immediate closing of the office “to send the message that such actions are not cost-free and that, at a minimum, they result in setbacks to U.S.-Palestinian relations.”

AIPAC also is backing a Senate amendment that would shut the PLO office, and if the Palestinians proceed to the International Criminal Court, would cut P.A. funding.

AIPAC’s professional leadership circulated a letter to senators urging its passage.

“The amendment does two things,” said the letter, signed by Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, and Marvin Feuer and Brad Gordon, its joint directors of policy and government affairs. “1) It would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority should it successfully pursue anti-Israel efforts at the International Criminal Court and 2) it would close down all PLO offices in the United States unless the Palestinians re-enter meaningful peace negotiations with Israel.”

AIPAC, however, has not alerted its activists to the Senate amendment.

The amendment, proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) on the same day as the U.N. vote, never made it to the Senate floor; it’s not clear why.

Also not clear is why the House letter did not include a recommendation to Obama to cut funding to the Palestinians, although it has been the centerpiece of warnings over the last year to Palestinians should they press ahead with efforts to upgrade their status at the United Nations. The offices of Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and Berman, a California Democrat, did not return requests for comment.

In the past, Israel has quietly opposed cutting off funding to the Palestinians, and even after the U.N. vote, with the exception of the diversion of some $180 million in taxes earmarked for the Palestinian Authority to Israel’s electricity provider, it has refrained from imposing its own penalties.

Despite diplomatic tensions, Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces continue to cooperate to keep the west bank quiet, and, in the past, Israeli security officials have been vocal in their opposition to funding cuts for the Palestinians.

JTA Wire Service

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