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US Republican lawmakers claim criticism of Israeli annexation is antisemitic

In letter to Mike Pompeo, 12 House members call for rejecting 'blatant' antisemitism in Democratic push against annexation
Posters of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, with text in Hebrew reading: 'No to a Palestinian state; sovereignty, do it right!'
Posters of Trump and Netanyahu with text in Hebrew reading: 'No to a Palestinian state; sovereignty, do it right!' in Jerusalem last month (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

A group of Republican legislators has written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to endorse Israel's looming annexation of parts of the West Bank, contending that criticism of the Israeli government's plan is "antisemitic".

Referring to the occupied West Bank by its Hebrew biblical name, Judea and Samaria, the letter portrays annexation as the fault of Palestinians, who the Republicans claim have rejected multiple peace offers by Israel. 

It was signed by 12 House members, including Andy Biggs, chair of the influential House Freedom Caucus, a group of ultra-conservative and libertarian lawmakers. 

The letter was dated 10 July, but it drew outrage among Palestinian rights advocates after it was published on Tuesday by Congressman Scott Perry, one of its signatories.

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"America has no greater friend than Israel, and Israel has no greater friend than America. For 72 years, both of our nations have fought side by side in pursuit of justice and peace," the letter reads.

"No state in the modern history of the world has done more to prepare a path for reconciliation and peace with their neighbors than the State of Israel."

The legislators went on to urge Pompeo to reject Democratic efforts to thwart Israel's annexation plan.

"You soon will receive a letter criticizing any potential annexation of the Judea and Samaria Area," the statement reads. 

"We urge you reject the blatant anti-Semitism that pervades that letter, and instead continue the groundbreaking work you, on behalf of the United States and President Trump, have done to further peace and justice for the Israeli and Palestinian people."

The Republican lawmakers appeared to be referring to a letter sent by progressive Democrats to Pompeo late last month, which threatened to impose conditions on US aid to Israel if it proceeds with its annexation plans. 

'Not antisemitic'

Palestinian rights advocates were quick to slam the Republican assertion that opposing annexation was antisemitic.

"It feels redundant to keep saying this, but we’ll keep doing it until more politicians listen: It is NOT antisemitic to criticize Israel, the occupation, or annexation," IfNotNow, a youth-led progressive Jewish group, said on Twitter on Wednesday.

"It is actually one of the most Jewish things we can do: pursuing justice and repairing the world."

Khaled Elgindy, author of Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump, said the letter was "astounding".

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"Apparently, it's now antisemitic to oppose Israeli annexation - a brazenly illegal act. Every sentence of this letter is untethered from reality," Elgindy wrote in a post. 

The letter says "peace would ensue" if the Palestinian Authority would lay down its arms. In reality, the PA does not have a military, only a police force that gets American funding and conducts security coordination with Israel.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had set a 1 July deadline for starting the process of annexing parts of the West Bank, but it seems to have postponed the plan amid global outrage.  

The Republican legislators dismissed those who "wax poetic about a perceived injustice" when raising concerns over annexation, saying that Israel's decisions around "territorial boundaries" were dictated by its "security concerns". 

"Israel continues to offer territorial concessions in Judea and Samaria, yet the Palestinian Authority seems more intent on eliminating the existence of a Jewish state than earning a Palestinian one," the letter reads.

The document cited several occasions where it said Israeli concessions were refused by Palestinians.

Did Palestinians reject peace?

Palestine advocates and legal experts have long rejected claims of generosity of previous Israeli proposals. 

While it is widely reported - and cited in the Republicans' letter - that then prime minister Ehud Barak offered the PA 90 percent of the West Bank in 2000, the proposal did not meet several key Palestinian demands.

Under the 2000 plan, which was revealed at US-brokered peace talks in Camp David, Israel would have retained control over major strategic areas in the West Bank, including the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, cutting off Palestinians from the outside world. 

Israel would have also keep a strip of major settlement blocks running west-east through the mid-section of the West Bank, effectively splitting a nascent Palestinian state.

There are conflicting reports - with more revelations and claims emerging as the years have passed - about what Barak actually offered regarding the critical matters of Jerusalem and refugees.

At the time, Palestinian officials said on the record that they were seeking a deal that would include these issues - not put them on the shelf for later talks.

"We are looking for an Israeli political decision on whether they are ready for peace, or if they are still wasting time and looking for excuses," Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said in November of that year.

"There must be a solution to all permanent status issues, foremost of which are Jerusalem and refugees."

Olmert's offer

Another "offer" cited by the Republican letter is a 2008 proposal by then prime minister Ehud Olmert. At the time, Olmert had already announced that he was stepping down from the premiership amid a corruption scandal.

Israeli reports say Olmert offered near complete withdrawal from the West Bank with land swaps for the territories that Israel would retain. Still, it is not clear whether the embattled outgoing prime minister had a mandate to negotiate or to offer concessions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he did not accept the offer because he was not given an opportunity to study the proposal.

"He [Olmert] showed me a map. He didn't give me a map," Abbas was quoted as saying of the 2008 talks by The Times of Israel. "He told me: 'This is the map' and took it away. I respected his point of view, but how can I sign on something that I didn’t receive?" 

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In 2009, Abu Rudeinah said the talks with Olmert did not include a "single serious position" or detailed map.

Even if Palestinians had agreed in principle to the proposal, any preliminary agreement would have likely been nixed by Netanyahu's right-wing government, which succeeded Olmert in 2009.

Hatem Abudayyeh, a co-founder of the US Palestinian Community Network, said the assertion that Palestinians had rejected viable Israeli peace offers was "ridiculous" and "easily refuted". 

But even if it were true, he added, it would not justify further oppression against Palestinians.

"In a number of these peace negotiations and proposals, the Israelis have never, ever come close to even allowing negotiations around what we call the 'final status issues'. There is no discussion about the right of return. There is no discussion about Jerusalem. There is no discussion about final borders," Abudayyeh told MEE.

"Even if you did believe in the two-state solution, what kind of viable solution could that have been when the Israelis - while they were 'negotiating peace' - were continuing to build settlements?"

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