WASHINGTON – J Street’s opposition to a congressional letter criticizing Palestinian incitement has led more members to sign on, according to Hill sources tracking the issue.

The letter to US President Obama, written by Rep. Steve Rothman (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio) in the wake of the Itamar murders, charges that “Palestinian incitement continues and there is almost no effort by them to promote coexistence and peace.”

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It calls for the White House to “do everything possible to urge [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas to root out terrorism, return to negotiations without preconditions, earnestly work toward peace with Israel, and slam the door on any effort to deal with final status issues at the United Nations.”

In response, J Street sent an email to members of the US House urging them not to sign it and issued a statement attacking the its contents as “containing material omissions and misrepresentations of fact and presenting a biased and inaccurate picture.”

The statement specifically criticizes the letter for not acknowledging the PA leadership’s efforts to end incitement and blaming incitement for the impasse in peace talks.

“Contrary to the letter’s accusations, the current Palestinian Authority leadership has taken great political risks and shown real willingness to end the conflict,” J Street states.

While the letter was originally circulated only among members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, J Street’s email was circulated more widely and prompted many additional representatives to express interest in the letter. A final count isn’t yet available because the deadline for signatures has not yet passed.

“J Street’s opposition to the Rothman-Austria letter has only increased the willingness of members to sign on. It begs the question of what are J Street’s goals,” said one congressional staffer. “If J Street’s goals are to have fewer people sign onto the letter, they’ve already failed.”

J Street Vice President of Policy and Strategy Hadar Susskind, however, said the organization’s email action was motivated first and foremost by the principle of responding to the letter’s content.

“We sent it based on the policy we saw in [the letter],” he explained. “What people do with it is up to them.”

The Rothman-Austria letter is circulating days after J Street lobbied for a letter by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) to US President Barack Obama calling for maintaining aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority as well as continued engagement in the peace process.

That letter, the centerpiece of 200 office visits conducted by grassroots activists in town for the J Street convention, was sent to the White House on Friday with 116 signatures. House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Howard Berman, as well as pro-Israel stalwarts Henry Waxman (D-California) and Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), were among the signatories.

The tally represents an all-time high for a letter lobbied by J Street, according to the organization, with nearly 60 percent of House Democrats and one Republican signing on.

Susskind attributed the unprecedented backing to “a combination of both the continuing growth of J Street, our presence on the Hill and in community and the rest of it, as well as the content of the letter.”

“This is a very solid effort,” said one aide to a Democratic congressman who did not sign the letter because of its wording and the number of members who backed it. But he added that the main points of the letter were ones many more Democrats on Capitol Hill embrace than those who signed on.

“This is a letter the vast majority of Democrats should have signed onto,” he assessed, blaming the “toxic” nature of the J Street brand for alienating would-be supporters of the letter.

“Rightly or wrongly some members of Congress do kind of a give a more critical eye to any policy statements coming out of J Street because of what they’ve heard of J Street,” said another Democratic staffer.

“There are probably a higher number of members of Congress who would agree with the content of the letter than have signed it,” he continued. “I think that J Street has given ammunition to people who want to criticize them, and in other cases it might be unfair.”

One Hill worker pointed to J Street’s opposition to the Rothman- Austria letter as the kind of move that could alienate members who might otherwise support many of J Street’s positions.

“When you go after a liberal Jewish Democrat who is still supportive of the Obama administration, other members see that attack as an indicator that they could be next,” he said. “This is just the latest example of J Street being reckless with relationships on the Hill.”

Susskind declined to respond to the anonymous attacks, but he expressed satisfaction with the results the three-year-old organization got on the aid letter.

“I’m very happy with the number of people on the it,” he said.

“It’s a great list of people who support aid to Israel, aid to the Palestinians and American leadership in the region.”

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