Pennsylvania congressman muffs Mideast message

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Yasir Arafat died in 2004. Ariel Sharon has long been in a coma-like state. Rep. Joe Pitts called on both to negotiate.

HARRISBURG - Don't sign on the dotted line unless you've read what you're signing.

Just ask U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts (R., Pa.). He recently relearned that lesson the hard way.

Replying to a Chester County constituent's e-mail regarding Middle East tensions, Pitts wrote on April 20 that "it is now incumbent on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat" to hunker down at the negotiating table.

Problem is, Arafat died in 2004. And Sharon, no longer Israel's leader, has lain in a coma-like state since a massive stroke in 2006.

Pitts, whose district stretches from western Chester County into Lancaster and Berks Counties, was belatedly answering an e-mail sent to his office the previous April objecting to House Resolution 268, which, among other things, opposed any attempt to seek recognition of a Palestinian state outside a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"Thank you for contacting me to express your concerns," Pitts began. ". . .With the global war against terrorism, it is now incumbent on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat to clamp down on Palestinian extremists that have perpetuated violence and to restart a peace process."

The constituent's son is a contributing writer for a website that reports on Middle East news - and wrote Sunday of the exchange between his father and the congressman. That item, in turn, was promptly picked up by the Jerusalem-based Times of Israel and began catching fire on blogs and social media sites.

"Apparently, my congressman believes that the solution for peace in the Middle East will be reached by encouraging negotiations between a vegetable and a dead man," Ian Rhodewalt, a Chester County native who is spending a year in the West Bank city of Ramallah, wrote for Mondoweiss, a website that offers what it calls a progressive Jewish perspective.

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.

Pitts, 72, who was elected to Congress in 1996 and has served on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, could not be reached for comment. His spokesman, Andrew Wimer, said in a statement that the congressman's office receives tens of thousands of constituent inquiries and that a mistake was made in sending what he described as an outdated form letter.

"Mistakes are both few and rare," Wimer wrote, "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."

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."

 


Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.