Making a business out of Palestine’s struggle

(EI Illustration)

Soliciting the support of people in the US-based Palestine solidarity movement, Palestine Note recently launched a new website that aspires to become the online hub for all things Palestine. While the website announces its dedication to “news, stories and views about Palestine and Palestinians,” and its aspiration to become a “cultivator of community,” my brief interaction with its personnel revealed that there is more behind the enterprise than meets the eye.

“A business, not an NGO

As its CEO Fadi Elsalameen explained to me by email, Palestine Note is “a business, not an NGO [nongovernmental organization], not a political party.” More and more, it seems, people are attempting to monetize both the occupation of Palestine and the so-called peace process. But can the profit-logic of a business really play a positive role in the Palestinian struggle?

When it comes to Palestine, the discourse of “economic peace” or “economic development” represents the perspective of business elites and entrepreneurs who do not see why military occupation or a liberation struggle should be an obstacle to profit. A vehemence protecting the principal on investments has pushed principles of liberation out of the realm of institutional politics. It has been suggested that even Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, unforgivably let the international solidarity embodied in the Goldstone report slip away for the sake of a cell phone company.

There are things, however, that cannot be sold. Even a cursory investigation of Palestine Note’s founders should give pause to anyone working toward justice in Palestine.

Follow the money

Hani Masri and Abul Huda Farouki founded Palestine Note in early 2009. Masri and Farouki are two businessmen and Democratic Party fundraisers with connections to the PA, as well as the lobbying group the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP).

The two men epitomize the kind of Arab-American political strategies that have created few benefits for Arab-Americans as a community, and achieved almost no benefits to the Palestinian people — even if they have been personally beneficial for the two men themselves. Further, the tactics they have adopted have flouted the very principles that create the basis of the Palestine solidarity movement.

Masri has been an active donor to the Democratic Party. In addition to a $5,000 donation to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, in January 2009, Masri donated $2,000 to Representative Anthony D. Weiner (D-NY) (see Center for Responsive Politics, search for “Hani Masri”). Weiner is the Congressman from the 9th district of New York who is notorious for his anti-Palestinian views. In 2007, Rep. Weiner tried to outlaw the Palestine Liberation Organization in the United States (HR 2975, 110th Congress). In September 2009, progressive Jewish blogger Philip Weiss documented a town hall meeting where Weiner “trash[ed] Jimmy Carter” for his mild criticism of Israel, said that “Israel has no partners in Palestinians, who vote for terrorists,” and denied that settlements were problematic in the so-called peace process (MondoWeiss, “Anthony Weiner Goes From Right Wing Thug to Brilliant Populist in a New York Second”). Weiner ended his meeting uttering the words “am yisrael chai,” a slogan meaning “the Jewish nation is alive” and which is particularly associated with right-wing extremists in Israel. Weiner’s open and proven anti-Palestinian views and politics did not stop Masri, who is on the Board of Directors of ATFP, from donating to the campaign.

Sadly, Abul Huda Farouki’s money trail is hardly cleaner. Farouki recently donated $50,000 to former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for Virginia governor. More troublingly, Farouki apparently had business connections to the Bush Administration. In 2004, a contract worth $327 million to equip the Iraqi army-under-occupation was awarded to Nour USA, Farouki’s company, before it was rescinded due to controversy about the assignment procedure (“Tank Armaments Command Reissues Contract to Equip Iraqi Army,” Inside the Army, 31 May 2004. Arnaud de Borchgrave, “Iraq power grab,” The Washington Times, 7 March 2004). Incidentally — or not — Palestine Note’s domain name is registered to the same firm (see WHOIS Information). Contracts awarded to Farouki’s firm were criticized by those who suspected he won them as a result of his friendship with Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Bush Administration protege at the center of the rush to invade Iraq; the Bush Administration vigorously denied the claim (Borchgrave). Farouki’s connections to the occupation of Iraq might explain why the Palestine Note staff member who originally contacted me, soliciting my participation in the publication, had a history of working with the US-sponsored al-Huriyyah satellite channel and various USAID occupation projects in the country.

The rescinded contract did not end Farouki’s relationship with US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as he later signed a deal with Oshkosh Truck to “invest in infrastructure and training to support possible future sales of Oshkosh trucks in Afghanistan and Iraq” (“Terrorism Sparks Surge in Special Ops Market,” Defense News 3 April 2006). These dealings came under scrutiny once again when questions emerged about fraud in Iraq (Christian T. Miller, “Evidence of Fraud Found by Iraq Audit,” Los Angeles Times, 30 April 2006). Farouki, like Masri, is connected to the Democratic Party fundraising machine, giving $10,000 to the Clinton Legal Trust in 1999 (“Virginia No 6 in Donations for Clinton’s Legal Defense,” The Daily Press, 26 February 1999). Finally, Farouki is a founding member of the ATFP.

With friends like these

There is an errant school of thought prominent amongst some wealthy Arab Americans that regards political donations and active participation with US government foreign policy as an effective and sufficient means of shaping US policy. Aside from the tremendous ethical problems posed by this strategy (one wonders if Masri or Farouki would pursue it if war and occupation were not so profitable), it simply has no formidable record of results for the people it purports to champion.

Masri, it turns out, was also a friend of Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee Chairman to whose unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign Farouki donated. In his 2007 book What a party!, McAuliffe recalls Masri as a “good friend” who was “close to [Yasser] Arafat and in April 2000 … hosted a small dinner for him at the Prime Rib restaurant in Washington” (p. 250).

While the Palestinian Authority and vocal supporters like the ATFP boast that this sort of access can be considered a success in and of itself, McAuliffe’s memoir draws a startlingly different picture. Sitting next to Arafat at Prime Rib, McAuliffe calls the dinner “comical,” describing how whenever Arafat “was making a point, he would lean over and rub my leg under the table.” Apparently homophobic, McAuliffe comments that it was “not something that men normally do to me,” and that he “just couldn’t visualize [his] friend Ariel Sharon rubbing [his] leg when [he] talked to him” (McAuliffe, p. 251). While this is precisely the kind of “access” that the ATFP promotes and almost exclusively pursues, McAuliffe — mentioning the leg rub for the fourth time within the span of eight sentences — apparently “looked forward to the end of the meal” because “it started getting awkward having my leg rubbed so much.” If the homophobia is not forceful enough already, McAuliffe muses: “What would the nuns at St. Ann’s think?”

While Ariel Sharon of the Sabra and Shatila massacres is described as “my friend,” Arafat is slandered as a clueless or lecherous old man, practically harassing McAuliffe at the dinner table. Contrary to what we are told about the importance of access to high level US authorities, McAuliffe sees in Arafat and the other PA contacts only an ineffectual laughingstock, even while bragging about his friendships with Israeli leaders and pro-Israel lobbyists.

Worse still, McAuliffe’s recollection suggests no sophistication whatsoever in understanding the Israeli occupation or the history of the Palestinian struggle. McAuliffe repeatedly characterizes Palestinians as harboring disagreements for the sake of disagreement, rather than for any substantive reasons. He criticizes Arafat for “reopening negotiations on specific details,” disapprovingly pointing out that Arafat was “under pressure … to fight for the best deal possible,” as if these were not the normal goals of any strong negotiator (McAuliffe, p. 252).

If Masri can dine with McAuliffe, if Masri can create “back channels” between the PA and minor figures in the Clinton Administration, if begging and pleading can win a meeting or phone call, perhaps such humiliation might be worth it — but only if it ended up having a positive impact on either the Clinton Administration’s understanding of the situation or the results of talks. Instead, with Masri’s friend McAuliffe writing about contacts with Palestinian leaders as if apologizing for them, justifying diplomatic contacts with Palestinian leaders by balancing them out with a history of friendship with Israeli leaders and lobbyists, the misguided efforts created an enduring impression that Palestinians were to blame for what transpired after the creation of a Jewish supremacist state on their own land.

We should not validate McAuliffe’s impressions, but that kind of reception should give us pause when we consider that the PA and supporters like the ATFP continue to plead for our faith in their ability to produce results out of an old strategy that has never brought success to the Palestinian struggle, even if it has enabled self-aggrandizement and facilitated the business interests of a small elite.

A line must be drawn

Palestine Note has only recently opened its doors but its first decisions reflect poor judgment and call into question whether it intends to be anything more than a cynical business venture — whether it intends to place itself in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by honoring Palestinian civil society’s call for a boycott of Israel.

Its editor, for example, is none other than Lisa Goldman, the Israeli blogger who drew attention when she entered Lebanon under false pretenses on behalf of an Israeli television channel. Failing to identify herself as an Israeli working for Israeli television, Goldman allegedly endangered the welfare of those who agreed to interviews, many of whom later lost jobs or were marginalized by friends and family because of their appearance on Israeli television (see the Angry Arab blog, Lisa Goldman and the media award). When I wrote to Palestine Note CEO Fadi Elsalameen criticizing Goldman’s appointment, Elsalameen responded that the company is “above everything objective” and that the team is “hired based on their skills not backgrounds.” Elsalameen’s sanitized response dodges the question, and implies that no one but Goldman was available for the job. How can it be the case that no one with a more credible record of supporting the Palestinian struggle was available for a website about Palestinians?

Furthermore, Palestine Note is structured in a way that undermines Palestinian civil society’s call for a boycott of Israeli institutions. It is intent on legitimizing the Palestinian voices on its site — indeed the very subject of Palestine — with the simultaneous presence of Israeli voices, a framework that directly contradicts the spirit of Palestinian civil society’s 2005 call for a boycott (“… events and projects involving Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis that promote ‘balance’ between the ‘two sides’ in presenting their respective narratives or ‘traumas,’ as if on par, or are otherwise based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized … are equally responsible for the ‘conflict,’ are intentionally deceptive …” (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, “Guidelines for Applying the International Cultural Boycott of Israel, 20 July 2009). That framework is one of Palestine Note’s key strategies in “creat[ing] a forum for the engaged, informed discussion of vital cultural, social and political issues facing Palestine and the Palestinian community” — strangely absent from its mission statement is a hint that those issues facing Palestinians are related to different manifestations of Israeli oppression. That Israeli bloggers are very prominent on a site about “Palestine and the Palestinians,” not “Israel and Palestine” or “Israelis and Palestinians” suggests that Israelis should have a privileged and authoritative role in talking about Palestinians.

Moreover, this framework of “symmetry” or “balance” appears to constitute Palestine Note’s profit model, as it is one of the site’s distinguishing characteristics. That the site presents these Israeli/Palestinian perspectives as equal, overlooking the difference between oppressor and oppressed, and failing to address the privilege that Israelis exercise as a result of their government’s dispossession and oppression of Palestinians (regardless of whether they personally agree or disagree with the government’s actions) is even more troublesome given the apparent exploitation of these disparities for profit.

Palestine Note undermines the boycott and its goals not because it offers a platform to Israeli writers, but because its mode of presentation appears to base the validity of Palestinian grievances on their consonance with Israeli or Jewish criticisms, in much the same way that the American Task Force on Palestine ensures that its public messaging is within the parameters of US State Department policy. That the editor of a website explicitly “about Palestine and the Palestinian community” is Israeli is troubling, especially when depriving Palestinians of the ability to speak for themselves has been a historical characteristic of Israeli oppression. One can only imagine the curious reaction a magazine dedicated to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa would receive if its editor-in-chief benefited from the apartheid regime yet had never renounced it.

That is why the framework and those who employ it are subject to the boycott, which targets “not only the complicit institutions but also the inherent and organic links between them which reproduce the machinery of colonial subjugation and apartheid” (PACBI Guidelines for the International Cultural Boycott of Israel). Certainly, that the most frequent critics of Israeli policy on Palestine Note are presently Israeli and Jewish writers is a fine development for Israelis — but Jewish and Israeli writers rarely face difficulty publishing such critiques in mainstream English-language media. It is the Palestinians, and others who voice more systematic critiques of the Israeli state, who are rarely afforded entry into English-language media.

Palestine Note’s existence must be read against the backdrop of ATFP’s failure to win the support of Palestine solidarity activists, as well as the PA’s dramatic decline in legitimacy post-Goldstone. When a lobby organization has more support in Washington, DC than amongst Palestinians or their supporters, it is staring at its own irrelevancy. Now, it seems, the PA and its satellites must take cover under a platform like Palestine Note. As Mahmoud Abbas’s apologists begged for “unity” after selling out the Palestinian people in the Goldstone affair, those involved in Palestine Note resort to this umbrella platform for grounding.

While the money trail behind Palestine Note — a war profiteer like Abul Huda Farouki and a misguided political fundraiser like Hani Masri — is cause enough to object to the site, its breach of Palestinian civil society’s call for a boycott is another forceful reason for skepticism. These are among the reasons why I felt that, to be consistent with my personal commitment to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, I could not work with Palestine Note.

Yaman Salahi is a first-year student at Yale Law School.