By George Hale
In early March, President Mahmoud Abbas approached Cuban leader Raul Castro with an unusual request.
According to the veteran Israeli negotiator who set up the call, Abbas wanted Castro to free Alan Gross, a Jewish American contractor jailed by Havana since late 2009.
The intermediary, peace activist Gershon Baskin, says Gross “is being held hostage.” The view is shared by much of the US Jewish community as well as the State Department, which has no direct ties with Cuba. Palestine, however, has an excellent relationship with the island nation, so Baskin contacted Abbas.
“I asked the Palestinians, and he did that,” Baskin said in an interview. “It was a very good, humanitarian gesture on the part of Abu Mazen,” he said, although the talks failed to secure Gross’ release.
What does an American jailed in Cuba have to do with the Palestinians? Emails stolen in May from a Palestinian Authority cabinet minister may provide a clue.
Posted online, the messages depict Palestinian officials desperate to convince a powerful Cuban-American lawmaker to lift a hold on $147 million allocated for civilian aid to the Palestinians.
The congresswoman, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is one of the Castro regime’s fiercest critics in Washington. Gross is from Maryland but his plight is a priority for many of the lawmaker’s south Florida constituents.
Three weeks after Abbas contacted Castro, Ros-Lehtinen relented on half the funds — about $89 million — that she had withheld for seven months in protest of Palestinian efforts to seek membership in the UN. On March 23, the lawmaker sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining that she would “no longer object” to distributing the aid for water programs, healthcare and food.
The letter made no mention of the Palestinian overtures to Castro, but a person involved in the campaign to free Gross said the congresswoman had agreed to consider releasing the money if Abbas succeeded. She was first approached with the proposal by one of Gross’ attorneys.
Baskin confirmed this account but said Ros-Lehtinen was also under pressure from the State Department and even AIPAC, an influential pro-Israel lobby group. And she was not the only one blocking Palestinian money; Republican Kay Granger of Texas had a similar hold in place.
Still, the Palestinians understood their intervention as necessary to appease Ros-Lehtinen, not Granger. Baskin said he initiated the talks as a goodwill gesture to Ros-Lehtinen, although she is not mentioned by name in the messages stolen from Mahmoud Habash, a senior Palestinian official.
The emails were first leaked to websites run by critics of Abbas, including one that was blocked from February until early May upon the orders of the Palestinian attorney general.
That site, In Light Press, described the messages as proof of Abbas’ indifference toward a mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons. Like others in Ramallah, the president was paralyzed by the popular action as it gained support amongst Palestinians who already closely followed developments in Israeli jails.
“At the height of the hunger strike by the noble sons of Palestine,” the website reported, “the president and one of his ministers, Mahmoud Habash … were fighting a different battle”.
It added: “Nowhere in the correspondence can be found any reference to Palestinian prisoners.”
The emails, dated Feb. 19 to March 5, were between Baskin, Palestinian Authority religious affairs minister Mahmoud Habash, and Peter Khan, one of three lawyers representing Alan Gross.
The Cuba gambit was not the first set of unlikely negotiations set up by Baskin. He is credited with initiating years of back-channel contacts between Israel and Hamas that culminated in October with the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier.
Baskin first confirmed in early June that the messages bearing his name were authentic. He also confirms that “the Congresswoman,” as she is identified in the emails, is Ros-Lehtinen.
“I had hoped to change her view of Abu Mazen and of the Palestinian people,” he said.
“This is a person who is tremendously anti-Castro, and also tremendously anti-Palestinian. There was a great focal point there … The invitation surprised her.”
But Cuba’s position left no room for a deal. Castro gave Abbas his “standard response” that the Americans had to release five Cuban prisoners, while the US was only willing to release one, he said.
Ros-Lehtinen knew of the Obama’s administration’s position and denounced it in remarks last fall, calling instead for Gross’ immediate and unconditional release. A daughter of Cuban emigres, the congresswoman has established a firmly anti-engagement persona over the years.
In October, she blasted the White House for showing an “outrageous willingness” to engage Castro after reports surfaced that the US was ready to talk.
The Obama administration “never met a dictatorship with which it didn’t try to engage,” she charged. “We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants.”
Khan, the lawyer copied in the emails, told Ma’an in June he was not “directly involved” with the Palestinian lobbying and referred inquiries to a second attorney who did not return calls and emails.
Ros-Lehtinen did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee did not return calls, and messages left at her Florida office were not returned.
Nimir Hammad, an advisor to the president, denied knowledge of Abbas’ efforts.
Mahmoud Habash, the religious affairs minister, declined to comment.