Influential Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California has refused to co-sponsor and sign a letter praising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for brokering the recent Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the Rafah border crossing.
“I was fine with everything about the letter except the last paragraph,” Berman, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, told the Forward. In particular, the lawmaker said, he objected to the letter’s suggestion that “breakthroughs come only when the U.S. president or secretary of state is personally involved,” terming it “paternalistic” and “historically inaccurate.”
Berman said he was also concerned that the letter made no mention of the American-backed “road map” peace plan and did not recommend any future action.
Written by Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat, and co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, the letter commends Rice for “achieving a historic agreement.” It has been endorsed by Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the congregational arms of the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements.
By Tuesday , 95 congressmen had signed the letter — including nine of the House’s 26 Jewish members. The letter received bipartisan support, including three of the four senior Republicans on the International Relations Committee, as well as California Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos, the committee’s ranking Democrat. Rep. Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who leads outreach to the Jewish community for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also signed the letter.
In addition to Lantos and Israel, the other Jewish lawmakers — all Democrats — who signed were Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Rahm Emanuel and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and four Californians: Susan Davis, Bob Filner, Jane Harman and Adam Schiff.
Several Jewish Democrats who declined to sign the letter expressed reservations about the viability of the new border crossing; at the same time, Israel’s military chief, Dan Halutz, was raising doubts about the new arrangement.
Halutz told Israeli lawmakers Tuesday that the “safe-passage” deal was on hold pending a Palestinian Authority crackdown on rocket fire from Gaza. Halutz also complained that the P.A. has not honored its commitment under an American-brokered deal to pass security information about the Gaza-Egypt border — a charge rejected by American officials, according to a report in Ha’aretz. The movement of bus convoys from Gaza to the West Bank was to have begun Thursday. Its non-implementation could put Israel on a collision course with the United States, which sees freeing up the Palestinian movement as key to reviving peace efforts.
“I think it is premature to praise an agreement until we know if the effect of its implementation matches its optimism,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, said through a spokesman. A Democratic congressional staffer who declined to be named said, “I’m not sure Secretary Rice needs to be praised for it, given what the situation is.”
Several Israeli officials and some American Jewish community leaders complained in recent weeks that Rice was “heavy-handed” in the way she brokered the deal and all but presented Israel with a fait-accompli that forced it to compromise on security concerns. The agreement states that Israeli security officers will not be present at the Rafah crossing and that the Palestinian side would have the last word in cases of disagreement over the entry of disputed persons into Gaza.
Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who signed the letter, criticized his reluctant colleagues: “I don’t think it’s becoming for American Jewish politicians to be averse to taking risks,” Frank said, adding, “Sometimes you have two sides stuck in a situation and you need someone to help move it.”