Rep. Pitts in damage control mode following call for Arafat-Sharon negotiations

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Representative Joe Pitts (Photo: CSPAN)

Since we published Ian Rhodewalt’s report over the weekend about the odd letter Representative Joe Pitts (R-PA) sent a constituent calling for Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat to restart negotiations, Pitts’s office has been scrambling to explain the error. Just as a reminder, here is an excerpt from the letter:

With the global war against terrorism, it is now incumbent on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasir Arafat to clamp down on Palestinian extremists that have perpetuated violence and to restart a peace process that has collapsed.

The website PoliticsPA ran a statement from Pitts Communications Director Andrew Wimer:

“Congressman Pitts responds to tens of thousands of constituent inquiries a year. Because it is impossible to draft a unique reply to each inquiry, language is often reused for similar responses. In this case, a double mistake was made. Language that should have been archived was included in a draft response. The response was then pulled from the queue because of the error, and then mistakenly sent almost a year later. Responding to tens of thousands of letters a year is a complicated process. Mistakes are both few and rare, but do sometimes occur. This one was particularly embarrassing. We have apologized to the constituent and are reviewing our internal process to make sure this sort of thing can’t happen again.”

Pitt’s chief of staff, Gabe Neville, was a bit more contrite in a interview with Harrisburg PA’s WITF:

“This is particularly embarrassing,” said Gabe Neville, Pitts’ chief of staff in Washington. He said the contents and postage of the letter amount to a “double mistake”: an outdated form letter that was pulled it from the mail pile a year ago, but sometime since then, added back into outgoing mail.

“It’s a dumb mistake that is the result of human error in a complicated mail system,” said Neville, who added the mistake is not a reflection Pitts’ awareness of international relations. The south-central Pennsylvania lawmaker has served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Human Rights Commission.

“He’s well aware of current events in Israel and around the globe,” said Neville. “So nobody’s more upset about the error than he is.”

Pitts is facing an election in November and it seems the gaffe might have legs. The Hill says, “Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) is seeing his foreign policy credentials come under fire,” due to the letter and PoliticsPA reports his upcoming Democratic opponent is using the mistake to her advantage:

His Democratic opponent, veteran and businesswoman Aryanna Strader, jumped on the news as well.

“Being this completely out of touch with such a major foreign policy matter is inexcusable,” she wrote in an email to supporters. “If we are ever going to change Congress, we must change who we send there. And that is why I am asking you to please make a $16 contribution to our campaign today.”

The letter has even raised eyebrows in the Middle East. From an editorial in the UAE-based The National:

So you write a letter to a congressman expressing concern over House Resolution 268, a resolution that reaffirms US commitment “to a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

And then you wait. A year later, you receive a response dated April 20, 2012. But it might as well have been dated 2002. . .

The Middle East peace process has enough problems without having to rely on the efforts of a Palestinian leader who died in 2004, and an Israeli one who has been in a coma since 2006.

It might be tempting to dismiss this as a one-off absurdity, but it is cause for genuine concern. The House of Representatives has considerable influence on US foreign policy in the Middle East. Is it too much to expect them to know what year it is over here, too?

Luckily, Pitts’ constituent who received the letter, Scott Rhodewalt, is willing to help. From The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s “Pennsylvania congressman muffs Mideast message“:

In an interview Tuesday, Rhodewalt’s father, teacher Scott Rhodewalt of East Nottingham Township, said Pitts’ response was an example of how the congressman “has not served us well.”

“He and his staff must take such little interest in their constituent relationships that they would send this kind of appalling letter,” the elder Rhodewalt said. . .

Even in the fragile arena of Middle East relations, the main result of Pitts’ gaffe has been harmless humor. One website, themoderatevoice.com, dubbed him “Dumb Congressman of the Week.” The Times of Israel quipped, “Neither Arafat nor Sharon were available for comment.”

As for Scott Rhodewalt, he said he was willing to take time out from his job – he teaches a course called “Peace, Justice and Social Change” at Wilmington Friends School – to educate Pitts about what he believes is the need to understand in depth both sides of the Middle East conflict.

“I would be more than happy to help him recuperate from the damage,” he said, “if some good can come from this.”

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