WASHINGTON — In an effort to defend Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice against allegations of heavy-handedness in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian border-crossing deal, the heads of America’s two largest synagogue movements are calling on members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter commending her efforts.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, sent a letter to all House members, urging them to sign a letter congratulating Rice. The letter is making the rounds on Capitol Hill. Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum, also signed the plea.
The congressional letter to Rice, initiated by Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde and by California Democrat Rep. Lois Capps, states: “Your role in the achievement of this accord, and the subsequent successful opening of the Gaza crossing point, clearly demonstrate the value of robust, hands-on U.S. diplomatic engagement with Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, more than three decades of Middle East peace efforts have shown that breakthroughs come only when the U.S. president or secretary of state is personally involved.” The congressional letter goes on to say that “your leadership helps reassure Israel and her people of the United States’ enduring commitment to Israel’s welfare and security, even as Israel takes risks for the sake of peace.”
By Tuesday afternoon, 22 House members had signed the letter.
The letter is the latest volley in a dispute — regarding Rice’s role in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement over the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt — that until now essentially had played out in Israel and within the Jewish community.
Reports in the Israeli media, confirmed by Israeli insiders, depicted Rice’s brokering as heavy-handed. Her plan, which was adopted after she reportedly presented it to the Israelis as a fait accompli, denies Israel a physical presence at the crossing and grants the Palestinian side a final say in disputes over people and goods crossing the border into Gaza.
“It was a take-it-or-take-it exercise,” an Israeli source said. The source is intimately familiar with Rice’s lengthy meeting with Israeli security officials at Jerusalem’s David Citadel hotel two weeks ago.
Shortly after the deal, several Jewish communal leaders criticized Rice over her aggressive efforts to hammer out a deal. Others criticized the heads of the Israel Policy Forum, who met with Rice shortly before her trip to Israel and encouraged her to get “aggressively” involved in pushing forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In the face of this criticism, the Israel Policy Forum, together with two other groups that advocate a heavy American involvement in the peace process — Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom — lobbied Congress to commend Rice for her leadership role. Soon after, they received the support of the Reform and Conservative movements. Together the two movements claim to represent more than 1,700 synagogues and millions of followers.
Meanwhile, this week, Bush administration officials, concerned by anger in the Jewish community over Rice’s efforts, attempted to reassure Jewish communal leaders of the White House’s commitment to Israeli security. One senior Bush administration official, who spoke on a conference call with leaders of the Orthodox Union on Monday, devoted the full length of the call to defending Rice’s involvement. The official, whom sources would not identify, told O.U. leaders that Rice helped Israel reach an agreement it had wanted to reach. Rice did so with full consideration of Israel’s security requirements and support from Israel’s government, sources reported the Bush administration official as saying.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has criticized the border-crossing deal since it was reached. Some Israeli observers interpreted the move as an election maneuver on Mofaz’s part, aimed at weakening support for Prime Minister Sharon.