Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Cuba to free jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross in hopes of persuading Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtninen to release a $147 million grant to the Palestinian government, according to a news report.
Ros-Lehtinen did later remove her hold on the funds, but an aide said the decision had nothing to do with any contact between Abbas and the Cuban regime.
Abbas’ intervention on behalf of the Jewish-American man came to light in a report Sunday by Ma’an, an independent Palestinian news service. It was based on leaked emails between Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin and Palestinian officials.
Baskin, who was reportedly involved in last year’s swap of one captured Israeli soldier for 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, described Gross as a Cuban “hostage” and suggested Abbas should telephone Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and urge him to free Gross.
Baskin told Ma’an that he hoped that if the phone call was successful, Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a staunch Israel supporter, would lift her block on a $147 million U.S. grant to the Palestinian Authority. Ros-Lehtinen and other Congress members were blocking the grant to show their opposition to the Palestinians’ application for a U.N. seat last year.
“I had hoped to change her view of (Abbas) and of the Palestinian people,” Baskin told Ma’an. The Cuban-born Miami Republican, “is a person who is tremendously anti-Castro, and also tremendously anti-Palestinian. There was a great focal point there.”
“I asked the Palestinians, and he did that,” Baskin told the news agency, referring to the Abbas phone call. He added that Ros-Lehtinen was aware of the Abbas call to Castro and three weeks later agreed to release $89 million for the Palestinians, Ma’an reported.
Spokesman Alex Cruz said that Ros-Lehtinen does not recollect being told of any Palestinian contacts regarding Gross, that her decision to release the funds “was totally unrelated to Abbas” and that the Ma’an report is “fabricated and outrageous.”
Baskin acknowledged to Ma’an that Ros-Lehtinen was also under pressure to release the money from the State Department and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobby. Cruz confirmed AIPAC favored releasing the money.
Castro gave Abbas his “standard answer” — that he would free Gross only if the U.S. government frees the five Cuban spies sentenced to lengthy prison terms after a Miami trial in 2001, the report added.
Gross, from Potomac Md., was arrested in Havana in late 2009 and is serving a 15-year sentence for delivering three satellite telephones to Cuban Jews as part of U.S. government pro-democracy programs. Havana has outlawed cooperation with the programs, alleging they are thinly veiled attempts to topple the communist government.
Palestinian and Cuban officials have long maintained warm relations, and one Baskin email suggested that Abbas mention the “special” relations between former Cuban ruler Fidel Castro and the late Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The emails, dated Feb. 19 to March 5, were part of a group of messages first published in May in Palestinian Web sites. Baskin confirmed that those between him and Palestinian Religious Affairs Minister Mahmoud Habash were authentic, Ma’an noted.
In one Feb. 20 email to Habash, Baskin said he understood that if Gross is freed the State Department “will work to remove Cuba from the list of states that support terrorism,” a list that carries U.S. economic sanctions.
State Department officials have said that Gross’s release is necessary before there can be any progress on U.S.-Cuba bilateral issues, including negotiations on what actions Cuba can take to be removed from the terror list.