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Fatah parley raises questions about Palestinian intentions, Obama’s strategy

WASHINGTON – The fiery rhetoric at last week’s Fatah meeting in Bethlehem has renewed concerns that the Obama administration is not doing enough to pressure the Palestinians.

At the first Fatah General Assembly in 20 years, participants refused to renounce violence and passed confrontational resolutions, like one blaming Yasser Arafat’s death on Israel.

Even as Jewish organizational leaders condemned the assembly, many of them acknowledged that Fatah leaders would remain Israel’s chief Palestinian interlocutors for peace talks. But they urged the Obama administration to issue a condemnation of the harsh talk at the west bank parley.

“We would like to see this administration express some disappointment on some of the rhetoric coming out” of the conference, said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman. “It’s not in line with the American initiative to bring the parties closer together.”

But other Middle East observers, including some who have supported the Obama administration’s calls for an Israeli settlement freeze, cautioned against such an approach. While some of the language used at the Fatah meeting may have been troubling, they said, the White House might be better off if it stayed focused on the broader picture and not necessarily respond to specific rhetoric.

Thus far, the Obama administration has said nothing, with the State Department passing up a chance to make a statement. State Department spokesman Robert Wood was asked at Monday’s media briefing about the party platform Fatah adopted at the assembly, including the position that the group “maintains the right of resistance by all means possible.”

“I haven’t seen the plan” Wood said, and simply reiterated “the importance of both parties” implementing “the ‘road map’ obligations, not taking any steps that in any way prejudge the outcome of future negotiations.”

Some corners are viewing the administration’s lack of response to the conference rhetoric as another example of what some Jewish leaders have charged is an imbalance in the pressure being applied by the administration on Israel compared to the Palestinians and Arab states.

President Obama has told Jewish leaders that pressure is being placed as well on the Palestinians and Arab governments, and suggested that perceptions of an imbalance are largely created by the media. But while the administration has made repeated public demands on Israel for a settlement freeze, it has said little publicly about the necessary steps that the other side must take, though Obama has issued general calls on Palestinians to stop incitement.

Several Middle East observers said they had read only media accounts of the Fatah party platform and had not seen the full document. According to the reports, the platform reportedly reiterates “the Palestinian people’s right to resistance to occupation in all its forms in line with international law.” Fatah leaders asserted in statements that they reserved the right to “armed struggle.”

In his speech to the conference, though, newly re-elected Fatah chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did stress that the Palestinians would focus on “nonviolent” resistance.

Some Israeli officials and officials at U.S. Jewish groups also criticized what they viewed as unreasonable demands made by Fatah at the assembly, such as proclaiming it would not negotiate with Israel until the Palestinians were given all of Jerusalem. Others downplayed such positions, saying that both sides usually posture by making maximalist demands before a negotiation begins.

Another complaint: Some who have engaged in violence and terrorism were honored and spoke at the parley.

Israeli government officials have been weighing in on the congress. Before the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “The rhetoric coming from Fatah and the positions being expressed are grave and unacceptable to us.” The next day, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a group of visiting Democratic U.S. Congress members that the Fatah platform, along with unrest in the west bank and Gaza Strip, “has buried any chance of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians in the next few years.”

The American Jewish Committee called the assembly “a slap in the face” to those interested in peace. Jason Isaacson, the group’s director of government and international affairs, specifically pointed to the resolution charging Israel with the death of Arafat as “a signal of the lack of seriousness” of Fatah.

“How is that acceptable in a political movement trying to operate on the world stage?” he asked, also criticizing the “wink and nod about the return to armed struggle.”

“We naturally hope the administration” would view the conference “with the same sense of concern that we have expressed in our statements, unless the bar of expectations is set so low that a disappointing conference isn’t worth commenting on,” he said.

One Middle East insider who declined to be identified was more blunt about the administration’s need to respond.

“This silence is what creates the impression of the imbalance,” the insider said. “Where is the condemnation for this kind of behavior?”

“This rhetoric impacts the street,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We’ve learned you can’t dismiss the issue of incitement.”

But other observers suggested that the administration should be more cautious about condemnation.

Nathan Brown, a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University and an expert in Palestinian reform, had not seen the full Fatah platform. Still, he said, it should be viewed as akin to a U.S. political party platform that might contain some “red meat language” to satisfy the political factions in a “large and diverse movement” like Fatah but isn’t necessarily followed by the party leaders.

Brown said what was more important was whether the Fatah leaders elected at the assembly would form a “coherent” organization dedicated to a diplomatic solution and whether they continue to “do what the Israelis want them to be doing” on security and other issues, something that won’t be known for a few months.

Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir, whose organization has been supportive of Obama’s approach, said that while some of the “hyperbole” from the Fatah congress was “troubling,” he didn’t think “micromanagement” of inflammatory statements by Palestinians or Israelis would be helpful to peace efforts. Nir also put a positive spin on the excerpts of the party platform he had read, noting that while they were still holding out violence as an option, the platform “adheres to the peace option.”

No matter their interpretation of the Fatah assembly, there was general consensus that Fatah is still the only game in town when it comes to a peace partner for Israel — which is why the group’s actions should be taken seriously.

Not everyone agreed with that assessment, though.

“This conference made it crystal clear,” said Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein, that “peace is not possible with Hamas or Fatah.”

JTA

 
 

Jewish support for Israeli-Arab causes goes mainstream, irking some

When the Reform movement passed a resolution endorsing advocacy for Israeli Arabs, it wasn’t the first time an American Jewish group had backed the cause of Israeli-Arab equality.

In recent years, a growing number of American Jews have thrown their support toward Israeli-Arab causes, including civil rights and advocacy organizations, women’s empowerment courses, student-exchange programs, and even film festivals.

More than 80 Jewish groups belong to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues, which works on behalf of equal treatment of Israeli Arabs and Jews.

The Jewish federations’ Venture Fund for Jewish and Arab Equality and Shared Society, a mix of 21 private family foundations, federations, and philanthropists, has raised more than $1 million for Israeli-Arab causes since its launch in 2007. And in 2006, the Jewish Agency for Israel announced it would invest in projects benefiting Israeli Arabs, scrapping a policy, in place since its founding in 1922, of exclusively helping Jewish causes.

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A controversial poster depicting an Israeli soldier clutching a Palestinian woman’s breast was created by an Israeli-Arab group that receives funding from diaspora Jews.

Last week’s unanimous endorsement of the cause by American Jewry’s largest religious movement, at the biennial conference in Toronto of the Union for Reform Judaism, was the latest sign that Jewish support for Israeli-Arab causes has gone mainstream.

“There’s no doubt that more money has been given to this issue then ever before. It’s become a mainstream issue,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, co-chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force, a former CEO of the Jewish federation of San Francisco and one of the key Jewish activists raising money in the diaspora for Israeli Arabs. “Whether your mind-set is equality, whether it’s the security of Israel, whether it’s building bridges, all three reasons are involved and these are compelling reasons.”

Arab citizens constitute approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population of 7 million. Though they have the same rights accorded Israel’s Jewish citizens, studies have shown that Israeli Arabs routinely suffer from employment discrimination and receive fewer government funds than Israel’s Jewish sector in such areas as education, infrastructure, and welfare.

In 2006, an Israeli government committee set up to investigate riots in October 2000, in which Israeli police fire left 12 Arab protesters dead, determined that Israel long had neglected its Arab citizens. The Or Commission finding helped pave the way for mainstream Jewish groups to support a cause long championed by organizations such as the New Israel Fund and the Abraham Project.

Not everyone is happy about it.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, says American Jews should not be sending funds to an Israeli community that is disloyal toward Israel. He cited visits by Israeli-Arab lawmakers to enemy states such as Syria by way of example.

“I think it’s a mistake to be raising money for Israeli Arabs, at least until they show their support for Israel and its rights,” Klein said. “There’s been an inverse relationship between the monies being allocated to the Israeli-Arab communities and their loyalties and commitment to Israel.”

The New Israel Fund, for example, has come under fire for its support of Israeli-Arab advocacy groups that take controversial positions, including calls for eliminating Israel’s Jewish character. Just last week, three NIF-funded Arab Israeli groups were behind a poster suggesting that Israeli soldiers sexually violate Palestinian women, prompting critics to cry foul.

The NIF defended its position even as it criticized the poster, which publicized a conference on sexual rights in Muslim societies called “My Land, Space, Body and Sexuality: Palestinians in the Shadow of the Wall.”

“While we certainly defend the conference as appropriate — and as always, may disagree with our grantees on some key issues but see no reason to force them into ideological lockstep — there’s no question that the poster in question is unnecessarily provocative and misleading,” NIF communications director Naomi Paiss told JTA.

Other Jewish organizational officials say the Israeli-Arab community needs to be held to account.

“We need to hold the leaders of the Israeli-Arab community or any other community to be responsible,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, which is a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force. “That means that when there are incitements or actions that are detrimental, they need to counter it.”

Warning that some of the money donated with the intent of bolstering Israeli society by reaching out to Israeli Arabs is used for “questionable purposes,” Hoenlein said donations by diaspora Jews should be put to use effectively “to counter the Islamist forces, encourage moderation, and create conditions that are inductive to it.”

American Jews who support funding Israeli-Arab causes say they do so out of concern for Israel’s democracy and Jewish values.

“Israel’s strength and survival depend on the democratic nature of the Jewish state,” said the Reform movement’s resolution on the issue. “These imperatives require that we be ever sensitive to the aspirations and just demands of Israel’s minority citizens.”

Jessica Balaban, the executive director of the Inter-Agency Task Force, says her mission transcends political and ideological boundaries.

“With better education, people understand that improving the quality of life for the Arab citizens of Israel is not only a moral imperative but also in our self-interest, and it’s been well received by the Arab community here,” she told JTA by phone from Israel.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella organization for Orthodox synagogues, said he objects to funding Israeli-Arab causes as a matter of priorities.

“Tradition teaches us priorities, and those priorities dictate that we give to our own families first,” Lerner said. “Jews in Israel have needs, and you don’t see the Arabs giving money to the Jews.”

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, subscribes to an opposing theological view. Quoting the biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger in your midst,” Ellenson says it’s a religious imperative — and eventually it will strengthen Israel.

“In general,” he said, “I think that people who are treated with respect and dignity tend to respond to those who treat them this way.”

 
 

Did group raise funds for Hamas on college campuses?

WASHINGTON – A U.S. congressman is the latest to call for a Justice Department investigation into whether a pro-Palestinian group has been raising money on college campuses for Hamas.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) urged a probe into Viva Palestina USA, a humanitarian aid convoy led by British lawmaker George Galloway that brought medical supplies to Gaza last July.

Both the Zionist Organization of America and Anti-Defamation League in recent months have urged Holder to investigate reports about the convoy’s links to Hamas.

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British Parliament member George Galloway, speaking at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London earlier this year, leads the humanitarian aid group Viva Palestina USA, which has been accused of supporting Hamas. Vince Millett/Creative Commons

The groups made their requests after Galloway and other Viva Palestina USA members appeared and reportedly raised funds at some college campuses in the spring and summer.

“Clearly, people and organizations in the United States cannot be allowed to solicit funds for foreign terrorist organizations,” Sherman wrote in his letter to Holder. “That such solicitation is occurring during the middle of the day at a public university is truly frightening,” he said, referring to the University of California, Irvine.

Sherman wrote similar letters expressing concern about the reports on Viva Palestina USA to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UC-Irvine chancellor Michael Drake, and Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman.

Viva Palestina USA was launched after the Viva Palestina group that Galloway set up in Britain sent a convoy to Gaza in March. It did not respond to a request for comment.

At a meeting in Gaza with Hamas officials during the March trip, according to a report from terrorism expert Steve Emerson, Galloway held up a bag of cash and said, “This is not charity. This is politics” and “We are giving this money now to the government of Palestine. And, if I could, I would give them 10 times, 100 times more.”

When the Viva Palestina USA convoy arrived in Gaza months later, there was no similar public event with Hamas, although the group reportedly did meet with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Giving humanitarian aid to Gaza is legal under U.S. law, but providing it to Hamas officials or the Hamas government in Gaza would likely be considered illegal because Hamas is on the list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The most controversial appearance by Viva Palestina USA and Galloway in the United States came May 21 at UC-Irvine, a campus that has experienced tensions between Jewish and Muslim students and where a civil rights complaint was filed earlier this decade claiming a hostile environment for Jewish students. (A federal investigation found that the university acted appropriately.)

UC-Irvine has referred information about the event, which was sponsored by the Muslim Student Union, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. ZOA leaders said they had obtained a video of the event and, at the bureau’s request, passed it on to law enforcement officials.

The university also says it is investigating whether the Muslim Student Union had violated university policy by raising money without the university’s authorization.

In a letter to the university’s campus counsel, the Muslim Student Union acknowledged that it may have “unknowingly breached university policy (as undoubtedly have every student organization on campus as well as university administrators).” But the student group rejected ZOA’s accusations that it may have raised money for Hamas as “nothing short of libel.”

“ZOA seeks to smear MSU’s reputation by maliciously accusing MSU of breaking U.S. laws without providing any real evidentiary backing,” the group said in its letter.

The ZOA praised the university’s decision to forward information on the Viva Palestina fund-raising.

“They’ve done the right thing,” said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice. “All groups should be held accountable.”

University spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said the campus police forwarded information on the Viva Palestina fund raising to the FBI because it felt “they were the best agency to handle it.” She said outside counsel is examining whether the Muslim Student Union violated campus procedures.

JTA

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British Parliament member George Galloway, speaking at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London earlier this year, leads the humanitarian aid group Viva Palestina USA, which has been accused of supporting Hamas. Vince Millett/Creative Commons
 
 

‘Son of Hamas’ staying in U.S.

WASHINGTON – When Mosab Hasan Yousef left a San Diego courthouse with the news that he would not be deported from the United States, he telephoned Sarah Stern in her Washington, D.C., office.

“Sarah, we won!” he told Stern, president of EMET: Endowment for Middle East Truth, June 30. “They’re going to give me political asylum and are dropping the case.... [Y]ou’re the first person I’m calling.”

“I let out a scream I was so happy,” Stern said.

The news climaxed Yousef’s three-year legal effort to settle in the United States, which he nearly sabotaged inadvertently with the March publication of “Son of Hamas,” a book that described his undercover work for Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency.

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Sarah Stern, president of EMET: Endowment for Middle East Truth, and former Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben-Yitzhak, left, lobbie’d to prevent the United States from deporting a former Hamas member, Mosab Hasan Yousef, who helped Israel. Bob Stein

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had moved to deport Yousef on the basis of passages that it said indicated he aided Hamas, which the United States lists as a terrorist group.

The reversal was the culmination of a short campaign waged by EMET, a small, four-year-old American Jewish organization, on behalf of a Palestinian Muslim-turned-Christian who had subverted the terrorist organization co-founded by his father.

Stern had worked in Washington since the 1990s for the Zionist Organization of America and the American Jewish Congress. In 2006 she alerted the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare to anti-Israel statements by a man nominated to the panel.

The task force’s co-chair, then-Rep. James Saxton (R-N.J.), recruited Stern to help identify moderate American Muslims as potential nominees.

She would found EMET as a platform for highlighting the courage of those who exposed the dangers of radical Islam. The organization also works to sensitize members of Congress to threats to Israel’s security.

Stern used her network of previous EMET honorees to locate Yousef to present him with the organization’s Speaker of the Truth Award at its June 23 dinner. Concerned for his safety, Stern began assisting him in fighting deportation.

In June, Stern secured three letters that Yousef’s lawyer, Steven Seick, said “made all the difference” once they were entered as evidence:

• The chairman of Israel’s Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee thanked Yousef for acting with “resolute determination … personal courage, reliability, and dedication” to save lives.

• U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), one of Yousef’s co-honorees on June 23, wrote a letter with 21 House of Representatives colleagues that urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to “take into account all the evidence,” particularly Yousef’s “cooperation with Shin Bet at significant risk to his own safety and life.”

• Former CIA director James Woolsey, a member of EMET’s advisory board, urged the U.S. to drop deportation proceedings, which if successful would be “an incredible travesty” and an “inhumane act” that would harm America’s recruitment of anti-terrorism agents and “set us back years in the war on terrorism.”

Another key factor, Seick said, was an affidavit signed by Gonen Ben-Yitzhak, Yousef’s former Shin Bet handler, attesting to Yousef’s character and to his pivotal role in preventing terrorist attacks, including against Israeli President Shimon Peres and ex-Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.

Seick was about to call Ben-Yitzhak as his first witness when the Homeland Security attorney announced that she was dropping the case. Yousef’s lawyer expects the official letter granting asylum to be issued by mid-August.

JTA

 
 
 
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