In just few hours, the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is slated to give the keynote address at the annual gala dinner of the American Task Force on Palestine, or ATFP. A few days ago, it was unclear Fayyad would be allowed to attend, much less speak, after the Palestinian Authority severed ties with the group.
The ATFP is a non-profit organization based in heart of the U.S. capital that, in its own words, “is dedicated to advocating that it is in the American national interest to promote an end to the conflict in the Middle East through a negotiated agreement that provides for two states – Israel and Palestine – living side by side in peace and security.”
It would appear that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, self-dubbed “America’s pro-Israel lobby” would be its natural competitor, though the mantra above can be found in both institutions. ATFP is not nearly as well-resourced as AIPAC and definitely not nearly as old, though in its single-digit years of existence, it has managed to make some significant waves in Washington, D.C. Its President and founder, Dr. Ziad Asali, is a well-respected player inside the beltway, known for his long years of pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab activism. He is a proud American who is unashamed of his roots and saw the need to establish such an organization in a post-9/11 America.
Asali is supported by two Fellows. Hussein Ibish is a communications professional who worked with Asali during his days at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. He is frequently on television speaking about Palestinian causes vis-à-vis American interests. And then there is Ghaith al-Omari. A former senior fellow at the New America Foundation, al-Omari participated in the Geneva Initiative as part of the Palestinian team and served as an advisor to Abbas. Which makes the rift between the two Palestinian bodies all the more surprising.
Asali is known to not get along with some Palestinian diplomats. Last year, he reportedly tried to get one fired, but failed to do so. It’s believed he specifically targeted Maen Rashid Aerikat, the ambassador of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the US (meaning, the official Palestinian delegate to Washington). It is thought that Aerikat may have been behind the proposal to sever the Palestinian Authority’s relationship with the ATFP, and even proposed an all-together boycott of the group.
Make no mistake, things were quite tense within the organization even before last week’s divorce was revealed. There was a big split over how, if at all, to support the Palestinian President’s bid for statehood before the United Nations last month. There were discussions back and force on whether the group should take a position, support Abbas, maintain neutral, or push for a diplomatic compromise. So heated did it all get that one board member, journalist Daoud Kuttab, resigned in protest over the final decision. Kuttab accused the ATFP of putting its own interests and survival ahead of Palestine’s.
But perhaps the point-of-no-return was an article Asali wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last month, in which he publically criticized the Abbas government’s decision to take to the United Nations General Assembly the issue of statehood. Asali wrote:
A Palestinian state is long overdue. But though the Palestinian people are perfectly entitled to seek bilateral and multilateral recognition, their action at the United Nations could lead to a dangerous diplomatic confrontation…. A diplomatic confrontation is not in the interest of any party. For Israel, it could prompt an outburst of public anger and possible violence in the occupied territories that would be a security challenge at home and deepen its growing isolation abroad. For Palestinians, it could mean a return to more restrictive forms of control by Israeli occupation authorities, more checkpoints and roadblocks, as well as other forms of retaliation, including punitive economic measures.
Not just by pen but also by mouth, Asali warned of a potential violent backlash to Abbas’ efforts in New York. Via a curt letter, the group was informed that the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is immediately cutting ties. But the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, is a close friend of Asali’s. They have been for years, and that has made some of the in-fighting all the more uncomfortable. Abbas is clearly angry with the ATFP and with Asali, in particular, and Fayyad is HIS Prime Minister. So while not speaking at the ATFP gala would be a slap in the face to Palestinian-Americans and their supporters, speaking there, theoretically, would be a slap in the face to Abbas.
It appears Fayyad is indeed set to speak, and one could assume that he received the green light from Abbas. Abbas is a big supporter of Fayyad, even, as some have argued, at the cost of a unity government with Hamas, which wants to see Fayyad gone. So it is highly unlikely that Fayyad is proceeding as planned without Abbas’ approval, however begrudgingly.
Either way, the rift highlights a deep divide among Palestinians, both in Palestine and in the diaspora, on what is best for the collective whole, and what is the best way to achieve it. If Mahmoud Abbas, as President of the Palestinian Authority, were only negotiating on behalf of people within his own governing limits, he would be much less restricted in his considerations. But as the Chairman of the PLO (the official hat he wore when speaking at the United Nations), he must also represent the considerations of Palestinians everywhere. That includes Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinians in refugee camps in neighboring states, Palestinians in penthouses in the Gulf, and even Palestinians in Washington’s halls of power. This can be quite a difficult balancing act.
On the other end of the stick is Asali and the ATFP, who are stuck between the Palestinian position and the American one, a choice that Israeli lobbyists rarely, if ever, have to make. We can only imagine what would have been the result if Asali had decided to support the Palestinian bid at the UN. After the US Congress chose to cut funds to the Palestinian Authority in response to their initiative, we can probably assume they would have cut their relationship with Palestinian lobbyists too.
Although there was an obvious personality clash between Aerikat and Asali before this latest conflict broke
out, the spat highlights the difficulties that Palestinian proponents face in managing their relationships with a Palestinian government and a pro-Israeli Congress. The difficult choice seemed to be one that preserved the existence of the ATFP.
Another possible factor in the severing of ties may be the ATFP’s status among Palestinian-Americans, where it does not receive a significant amount of support. Some Palestinians see Asali as elitist and out of touch, and the ATFP lacking in foot soldiers, which makes their relationship with the PLO as essential for their survival.
In the end, it might work out for the best, and even better than anyone imagined. There were suggestions that up to half of the ATFP’s board, including the prominent lawyer George Salem, might be quitting to form a new Washington lobbying group. And why not? If there’s room for AIPAC and J Street, surely there is room for ATFP and P Street, as well.
With contributions from Omar Rahman in Ramallah and Aziz Abu Sarah in Washington, D.C.