WASHINGTON (JTA) — Congressional Democrats defended their meetings with Richard Goldstone and denied any J Street role in arranging the sit-downs with the author of a controversial report on the 2009 Gaza War.
Goldstone and two senior aides to top Democrats who had knowledge of the meetings denied J Street’s involvement. The denials followed a Washington Times report last week asserting that J Street facilitated meetings between Goldstone and lawmakers.
An aide to Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, told JTA that Mort Halperin — the director of the Open Society Institute who is also listed as one of five J Street directors on its tax returns — directly appealed to Berman as a friend and not representing any group.
"Mort called Howard as a friend of 35 years asking him to take a meeting," said the aide, speaking on background. "It wasn’t set up through J Street. Mr. Berman was happy to do it."
The account was confirmed by a senior aide in the office of another top Democrat and by Goldstone, a respected South African human rights prosecutor.
"With regard to the arrangements for the meetings, I initially had contact only with OSI," Goldstone, who is Jewish, wrote in an e-mail to JTA. "Only in Washington did" the New America Foundation "come into the picture and Daniel Levy of NAF attended some but not all of the meetings. To my knowledge J Street had no involvement with the arrangements for the meetings."
The denials from Berman’s office and Goldstone came after JTA queries; the other aide to a senior Democrat called JTA unsolicited.
Halperin, Levy and others were concerned over what they viewed as the demonization of Goldstone subsequent to his authoring of the report on the 2009 Gaza War commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Goldstone called for Israel and Hamas to investigate their actions during the war, alleging that both sides committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. He said failing to investigate could result in international war crimes prosecutions.
Israel has had internal probes into its actions during the war; Hamas has not.
Israel and pro-Israel groups said the report was biased, failing to take into account the exigencies of urban warfare and de-emphasizing the Hamas rocket attacks that triggered the war, in which 13 Israelis and more than 1,100 Palestinians were killed.
J Street officials have said that they shared contact information with other groups, including OSI, involved in arranging the Goldstone meetings, and made a handful of preliminary calls to lawmakers’ offices to assess if there were interest in such meetings.
OSI is principally funded by billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist George Soros, who also has given to NAF.
J Street recently acknowledged that it had misled the public about Soros’ involvement in the group, and acknowledged that Soros and his family have donated $750,000 to the organization since its 2008 funding (or about 7 percent of its budget).
Goldstone had 10 or 12 meetings on Capitol Hill. The meeting with Berman took place two weeks after he helped secure passage of a congressional resolution condemning Goldstone’s report.
The two top Democratic aides who spoke to JTA expressed surprise that there should be any controversy about Goldstone’s visits.
"There were things that greatly disturbed Mr. Berman" about the Goldstone report, Berman’s aide said, "and he wanted to address the issues. He doesn’t have a policy of only meeting with people he agrees with — he meets with people across the spectrum."