WASHINGTON — Two major Jewish groups are at odds over the prospect of penalties for the Palestinians in the wake of their enhanced U.N. status.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee in recent weeks has backed two congressional bids to at least shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington in the wake of the Nov. 29 United Nations General Assembly’s overwhelming vote that granted Palestinians non-member observer state status.
Conversely, the Reform movement has emphatically urged President Obama not to retaliate against the Palestinians. 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 it might back penalties should the Palestinians use their new status to charge Israel in international courts. An AIPAC official has suggested 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 directly address differences with the Reform movement. 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 U.N. affiliates that similarly enhance the Palestinians’ status.
“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,” said the official.
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 utilities providers that have been dunning the Palestinians for payment.
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, was asked in an interview with Jewish media during the Chanukah holiday 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,” he 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 United States in responding to the Palestinians’ U.N. bid.
In a Dec. 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 Dec. 3 resolution jointly 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 Dec. 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 public the Dec. 3 resolution, but the Dec. 14 letter to Obama was released 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 when the nation was preoccupied with the massacre of first-graders the same day in Newtown, Conn.
Some dovish Jewish groups also have made clear their opposition to penalties for the Palestinians, among them J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
In a fundraising letter, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, counted the 239 signatures on the AIPAC-backed congressional letter sent Dec. 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 4 out of every 5 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 was still 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 — one that was preoccupied with 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 Democratic ranking member who together initiated the letter. Both are leaving their top committee posts, Berman after having lost an intraparty reelection 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 is also backing a Senate amendment that would shut the PLO office and, if the Palestinians proceed to the International Criminal Court, 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 reenter 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.
Israel in the past 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 Israeli security officials in the past have been vocal in their opposition to funding cuts for the Palestinians.