Latest update: May 24th, 2013
WASHINGTON – Two major U.S. Jewish groups are at odds over the prospect of penalties for the Palestinians in the wake of their enhanced UN 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 status.
Conversely, the Reform movement has emphatically urged President Obama 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 it might back penalties should the Palestinians use their new status to charge Israel in international courts. An AIPAC official 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’ UN 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 UN status but also at the speech by PA 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 Reform leaders have called for restraint from the U.S. in responding to the Palestinians’ UN 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, they 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 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 UN 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 to a JTA reporter. 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.
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