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The Palestinian leadership must speak directly — to Americans

As long as Israel holds unparalleled sway in Washington, no progress toward Palestinian rights will be achieved. But that needn’t be the end of the story.

By James J. Zogby

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a 'die-in' on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Israel's Operation Protective Edge, March 3, 2014 (photo: SJP)

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a ‘die-in’ on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, March 3, 2014 (photo: SJP)

Three decades ago, I was invited to address a Palestinian American audience on the work that was needed to change American policy toward Palestinian rights. Also speaking at that event was a PLO representative who was briefing the group on the work being done at the United Nations to advance the Palestinian cause. It had not been my intention to have a debate, but that is precisely what happened. The issues we raised then, remain relevant today.

The context was important. Palestinians were in the midst of an intifada and U.S. attitudes were being impacted by Israel’s violent repression. One clear example of this change was the coalition we were able to build with support from the Jesse Jackson campaign. Together we passed pro-Palestinian platforms in 10 Democratic Party state conventions and had the first-ever debate and floor demonstration in support of Palestinian rights at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. It was clear that movement on the issue was possible. My presentation, therefore, focused on what we had done and what we felt still could be done to make real change in America.

The PLO representative spoke about their diplomatic strategy. He noted that despite being repeatedly stymied by U.S. vetoes in the Security Council, Palestinians had won votes in the UN General Assembly by margins as large as 143 to 3. He then promised that if U.S. policy continued to ignore or obstruct Palestinian rights, the PLO would return to the Security Council again in the fall to introduce yet another resolution.

At that point, I had to intervene. While I acknowledged that they had done an extraordinary job winning recognition from countries all over the world, I questioned the logic of going back to the Security Council to get yet another U.S. veto. Wouldn’t it be better, I asked, to focus more effort on making change in the U.S., than to continue on the path that only led to frustrating defeats?

Hundreds of Palestinians gather to watch the speech by President Mahmoud Abbas in the bid for Palestine's "non-member observer state" status at the United Nations, projected on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, November 29, 2012. Hours later, the UN General Assembly voted 138-9 in favor of the upgraded status for Palestine, with 41 nations abstaining. (photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Hundreds of Palestinians gather to watch the speech by President Mahmoud Abbas in the bid for Palestine’s “non-member observer state” status at the United Nations, projected on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, November 29, 2012. Hours later, the UN General Assembly voted 138-9 in favor of the upgraded status for Palestine, with 41 nations abstaining. (photo by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

While much has changed in the past three decades, there are lessons to be learned from that old encounter.

In the first place, Palestinians have failed to adopt a political strategy to change the U.S., or to acknowledge that without that change, “victories” at the United Nations were, at best hollow symbolism.

By failing to engage American public opinion in a systematic way, Palestinians have squandered multiple opportunities. Instead of building support here, they have relied on what they assumed were statements of good will by American leaders — without recognizing that those leaders would turn on a dime when they faced pressure or hostile information campaigns by pro-Israel groups.

Here’s an example of a lost opportunity:

When Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Yasser Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority, we were commissioned by a group of Palestinian businessmen to poll U.S. attitudes toward the new PA president. We found that Abbas had a favorable rating of 53 percent and an unfavorable rating of only 16 percent. In our analysis, we noted that this finding, while positive, was precarious because Abbas’ rating had not been earned. Rather it was derivative of the fact that leading Republicans and Democrats were praising him because he wasn’t Arafat. We noted that these positive perceptions, however flimsy, provided an opportunity on which to build. We also cautioned that if work were not done to consolidate this favorable rating by directly engaging the American people, a counter assault by the Israelis would eat away at it.

A Palestinian man hangs posters of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 14, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

A Palestinian man hangs posters of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 14, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

And eat away they did with a relentless campaign to paint Abbas as an inciter of violence and a weak leader who repeatedly rejected peace offers. Both charges were patently false. But as Netanyahu and his far-right colleagues continued to harp on these themes, the Israeli campaign succeeded.

Ten years later, we did another poll of U.S. public opinion in which we found that Abbas’ ratings had flipped. It was now 17 percent favorable to 56 percent unfavorable. These new atrociously high negatives were as unearned and undeserved as the earlier high positives.

Not learning the obvious lessons from all of this, the Palestinian leadership continues to operate as before. They assume President Trump’s good will, then express disappointment at his clear lack of commitment to their plight and silence in the face of aggressive Israeli behavior, and finally they threaten to go to the United Nations to pass yet another resolution. All the while, they fail to adopt a strategy to impact U.S. opinion and the political setting in which Israel operates with impunity.

There is another observation to be made reflecting the unchecked ability of the Israeli side to use their political power and information campaigns to turn reality upside down. For years now, Israel’s supporters have angrily dismissed votes in the United Nations as “automatically pro-Palestinian,” motivated by fear of Arab blackmail or driven by anti-Semitism. At the same time, they ignore the fact that U.S. pro-Israel groups (including both AIPAC and its related PACs, as well as the Christian right) have used their political and financial clout to intimidate Congress making it “automatically pro-Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC conference, March 2, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC conference, March 2, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)

This year alone, over 30 pro-Israel bills have been introduced in Congress, almost evenly divided amongst those that call for: punishing the PA, supporting Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, threatening the UN, and imposing penalties on those who support boycotts against Israel.

Herein lies the dilemma. As long as Israel holds unparalleled sway in Washington, no progress toward Palestinian rights will be achieved and UN resolutions will either be met with vetoes, criticism from Congress, or threats that the U.S. will withhold funds from the world body.

But this needn’t be the end of the story. There is a changing political climate in the U.S. In addition to Palestinians and Arab Americans, there is an increasingly strong progressive movement among American Jews, millennials, African Americans, mainline Protestants, libertarians and traditional conservatives–who support justice for Palestinians. They have come together, on their own, largely in reaction to Israeli behavior to push for change. The Palestinian leadership didn’t create this movement and they can’t direct it or interfere in its development, but they should factor it into a strategy for change. What they must do is recognize that it it’s there and act accordingly.

The Palestinian leadership needs to stop acting as if the only games in town are “initiatives” coming from the administration or votes at the UN. They need to recognize that American opinion is changing and develop confidence that it can change further.

They need to speak directly to the American people, especially those who are supportive of their rights. And they need to encourage and broadcast the kind of non-violent mass action that was on display during the recent crisis in Jerusalem. The road to change is a long one, but there is no other way forward.

James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Lewis from Afula

      The first thing the PLO needs to explain to the Americans is why they had no elections in the last 12 years. Abbas is in the 12th year of his 5 year term.

      Reply to Comment
    2. JeffB

      Just to address what Zogby wrote here. It is absolutely true that progressives are tilting more towards Palestine, slightly. It is also true that among non-progressives Israel’s populatarity is increasing: http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2016/05/FT_16.05.20_IsraelPalestiniansC_party.png

      The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is becoming more partisan but overall Palestine is losing not gaining support in the USA. Israel currently ranks slightly below Canada and ahead of the UK in overall favorability measures.

      Reply to Comment
      • Richard Lightbown

        Very interesting Jeff, thanks. I think Pew has made a balls up of their categories and I think there is a significant tilt by Lib Dems (rather than your “slightly” tilting). So I see opportunities there, although I take your initial point. But just where do you get your “overall favourability measures” from.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Richard

          Here is the overall graph: http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2016/05/5_1.png

          You are right on the comment I probably should have said there is a dramatic change in opinion among Liberal Democrats and a dramatic corresponding change among Moderate Democrats in the other direction based on the polling. Problem is I don’t believe that. I think what’s happened is you have a very large number of people with no strong opinion and as Israel has been gaining ground since Obama came to office the specific issues being debated are more on Israel’s favor and things Liberal Democrats oppose. Having a war with Iran being the most obvious example, where even I didn’t agree with the Israeli position.

          I just don’t believe there has been that sort of drastic shift in people’s attitudes, rather there has been a moderate shift in the issues being discussed. The idea that there is anything like the negatives or will in any sane time frame be the negatives required to destabilize and destroy a nuclear weapons state because they don’t get along with a minority population is ridiculous.

          There is a debate as to whether to do that to North Korea or not. There is no one outside BDSers debating whether to do it to Israel. And BDSers think this sort of thing happens magically because Americans stop buying… (? what, not quite sure Americans don’t buy many consumer Israeli products).

          Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      Zogby is ignoring the 200 ton Brontosaurus in the room – the Islamic stabbings, shootings, car-rammings, bombings and rape epidemics that is draging Western Europe into civil war.

      Other than that, he is on the right lines !

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      Zogby is right. They need to make the case to the (massively ignorant and Israeli disinformation-bombarded) American public and their representatives. And they will have to do it with the same amoral, no-holds-barred, politically blackmailing, intimidating ruthlessness that AIPAC and other Israeli foreign agents have always employed. The Palestinians have to get smart. Except that the Palestinians will not actually have to be nearly as amoral because the one thing they will not have to use is the massive amounts of deceit the Israelis necessarily employ in their hasbara. Because the Palestinians have the truth on their side. The Palestinians can make the same utterly convincing case that +972 Magazine makes day after day.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Lightbown

      Good article making valid points, although I don’t share the enthusiasm for Mahmoud Abbas. I mean seriously, how can your write “…Abbas’ ratings had flipped. It was now 17 percent favorable to 56 percent unfavorable. These new atrociously high negatives were as unearned and undeserved…”

      Undeserved? Are you kidding? Just name me one significant thing this guy (this quisling) has ever done for his people. Just one! Jeez, only this year he even asked the Israelis to tighten the siege of Gaza.

      Reply to Comment
    6. i_like_ike52

      Zogby, as a good PR man, must know that you can’t use advertising to sell a bad product. While it is true that young Democrats are not as enamored of Israel as the older Democrats are, most Americans have little sympathy for the Palestinians, and not because Israel is supposedly so powerful PR itself. The Palestinian leadership, by its own actions, places itself in the mind of most Westerners as part of the global Islamic terror apparatus. After all, the Palestinian terrorists who murdered non-Jewish American tourist Taylor Force, are lauded by the official Palestinian leadership as great heroes, and his murder was justified by a FATAH spokesmen by his being a “settler”. Americans are aware of the official support for terrorism by the two-headed Palestinian leadership (West Bank/FATAH/PA and Gaza/HAMAS). This is in spite of the fact the PA, by signing the Oslo Accords supposedly comitted itself to resolving the conflict with Israel by peaceful means. Add to this, the endemic corruption and repression by both Palestinian leaderships, and Zogby doesn’t end up with an attractive product.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “you can’t use advertising to sell a bad product”

        On the contrary, it is done all the time. Who are you kidding? Especially, as in Israel’s case, the public you are selling to has little true information to go on. (And arm-twisting by excessively powerful lobbyists certainly helps the medicine go down too. But that is changing too.) But thanks to publications like +972 Magazine the true ugliness of the Israeli product underneath the packaging is finally becoming better known. +972 Magazine is like a Consumer Reports for I-P. I’m impressed with James Zoby’s realistic and sober arguments in these pages. Not just this article but his preceding one.

        Reply to Comment

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