State Dept. suggests 2009 Kerry letter used ‘under false pretenses’

I wrote yesterday about how John Kerry is coming under criticism from an Israeli journalist over a December 2009 letter issued over the then-senator’s signature. The letter requested that “every courtesy be given” to a group of Americans interested in visiting Palestinian areas. The letter vouched for them as supporters of the peace process.

The letter ended up being used later that month by pro-Palestinian activists who wanted to cross from Egypt into the Gaza Strip to protest Israel’s blockade of the territory. The activists tried to present the letter at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, in an unsuccessful attempt to seek the embassy’s assistance with Egyptian authorities who were blocking their entry into Gaza.

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The Maariv columnist who broke the story of the letter, Ben-Dror Yemini, posits that signing such a letter raises questions about the judgement a secretary of state now embroiled in tensions with Israel over Iran and peace talks with the Palestinians.

The problem with that theory is that nothing in the letter suggests that Kerry knew it would be used in an attempt to facilitate the Gaza Freedom March.

Two senior State Department officials now inform me that the letter was used “under false pretenses” if it was used by non-Massachusetts residents, to try to gain entry to Gaza or for anything other than simply facilitating meetings in the Israel or Palestinian areas. (The individuals named as trying to deliver the letter in the Maariv article — Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah and Code Pink’s Jodie Evans — are not Massachusetts residents, and Abunimah is an outspoken advocate of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

“The conclusion that Sen. Kerry was in any way affiliated with the Gaza activists or supportive of this effort is specious and unjustified,” according to a statement that one of the officials read to me.

The letter was “auto-penned” — i.e., not signed by Kerry himself — and issued from Kerry’s Boston office, and not from Washington, the State Department officials said. Neither Kerry nor his staffers on the Senate committee he chaired had any idea the letter was issued, the officials said.

The statement read to me by the State Department officials apparently is meant for Yemini, who in his article conflates the use of the letter in December 2009 at the embassy with the May 2010 flotilla that attempted to breach Israel’s Gaza blockade, and which ended in a deadly encounter with Israeli troops. In fact, there is no evidence that the letter played any role in the flotilla incident. The statement from the State Department officials takes Yemini’s erroneous conflation as fact.

Here’s the statement as I transcribed it:

The letter from Sen. Kerry regarding the humanitarian mission in Israel and the Palestinian territories was a form letter that was auto-penned, a standard constituent mail that congressional members send out as common practice. The Massachusetts Senate office receives hundreds of requests each year for letters like this for constituents traveling to other countries.

Sen. Kerry never saw it, nor did senior staff see it. It was put together by his Boston office and would also not have involved senior staff members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Moreover, the text of the letter has nothing to do with the flotilla incident or even Gaza.

It focuses purely on a humanitarian mission in Israel and the Palestinian territories in support of the peace process. Kerry’s staff would have provided the letter so that Massachusetts residents could receive meetings while they were in Israel and the Palestinian territories. That is all. And if it was used for anything else it was under false pretenses.

The two flotilla participants who the article says used the letter are both non-residents of Massachusetts. The letter specifically alludes to a Massachusetts delegation. Ali Abunimah lives in Chicago, Jodie Evans lives in California. None of these people had contact with Sen. Kerry’s office and if these people were carrying the letter, it was under false pretenses that are not the responsibility of Kerry’s senate office.

If, on the other hand, it was Massachusetts constituents who were involved in the flotilla, then based on the text of the letter it is clear they obtained that letter from Kerry’s staff under false pretenses.

The conclusion that Sen. Kerry was in any way affiliated with the Gaza activists or supportive of this effort is specious and unjustified.

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.