Politics of fear

American Task Force on Palestine President Ziad Asali congratulates US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after her speech at the ATFP’s inaugural gala, October 2006. (ATFP)

The Palestinians are some of the most talented, best educated, and hardest working people in the Middle East.
- US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Keynote Speech at The American Task Force on Palestine’s Inaugural Gala, 11 October 2006. [1]

The Palestinians, frankly, are a ragtag people, many who barely speak English. And whatever they say is often offensive and then used against them.
- Dr. Ziad Asali, President and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, 1 August 2007. [2]

During the Cold War, the conservative Arab governments used the threat of “international communism” to squelch internal dissent and secure their unpopular regimes while cultivating closer ties to Washington. In the “post-9/11” era, “communism” has been replaced by the specter of “terrorism.” Deeply unpopular at home and unable to rely on any notion of nationalism or Pan-Arab unity, Arab leaders have instead resorted to the politics of fear to bolster their rule by appealing to the basest elements of sectarian and ethnic bigotry: fear of a Shiite revival, or of Persian hegemony, or the chaos in Iraq. These tactics have emerged in Palestine since Hamas’ election victory, and have become more pronounced since the organization took over Gaza in June. Attempting to generate support for his attenuating rule, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has sought to paint criticism of him, the PA and Fatah, as emanating not only from Hamas’ supporters but directly from Tehran. Borrowing from George W. Bush’s Manichean philosophy, Abbas and his lackeys are offering Palestinians a simple and false choice: either you are with “us” (i.e., the PA and Fatah) or you are with the “terrorists” (i.e., Hamas and Iran). In the United States, Abbas has been aided in this effort by the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), a fledgling organization that professes to represent Palestinian-American interests. The implications of these tactics on Palestinian advocacy and aspirations in the existing political climate bear merit further scrutiny, as do the organizations and individuals which employ them.

Founded in 2003, the ATFP’s website states that it is “a not-for-profit organization that advocates to the American people the national security interests of the United States in establishing a Palestinian state.” [3] Hoping to replicate the success of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Iraqi National Congress in aligning their policy goals with US national interests, the ATFP believes this can be achieved through a program that reflects the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) strategy adopted in 1988 of a peaceful solution based on existing UN resolutions, international law and human rights. That this approach suffers from an inherent and fundamental contradiction appears to have been lost on the ATFP. Namely, that while an independent Palestinian state may be in America’s national interest, it has demonstrated absolutely no inclination to support the creation of a Palestinian state based on UN resolutions, international law and human rights, or even the Palestinian’s declared aspirations. For over sixty years American policy makers have recognized that a resolution to the Palestine “question” and conflict was vital to US national security interests and the basic outline of that solution has been known for forty years. Yet, it is only recently and begrudgingly, that Washington has declared support for a Palestinian state. Even then, that support has been limited to Bush’s “vision” of a state, while his administration’s policies have ensured that it will never be actualized. Moreover, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States, and the Bush Administration in particular, has perverted UN resolutions, international law and human rights to conform to it and Israel’s agenda. Most disturbing of all, through the Oslo Accords, the US and Israel found willing allies in subverting UN resolutions related to the conflict in the actions and decisions of Yasser Arafat, Abbas, and their coterie of sycophantic advisers. This is not a policy program or strategy — it is folly.

The ongoing preparations for the upcoming November “meeting” offer further proof of this delusional strategy. To appease US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hold frequent talks in order to produce a “framework” of “principles” for negotiation. [4] Although his presidency was hailed and supported by the US and Israel, after more than eighteen months in power Abbas has yet to yield any tangible results. This includes a year in office during which the ATFP concedes that Abbas and Fatah held “uncontested power,” but have been “systematically undermined by Israel.” [5] Nor will this situation change. In fact, Abbas has already been scolded by Rice that a “timeline” for “settling core issues” and creating an independent Palestinian state will not be achieved at the “meeting.” [6] It is, however, an opportunity for Israel and the US to wrench even greater concessions from the Palestinians and any Arab states foolish enough to participate in this farce. Their reward for attending is a photo-op with President Bush and their own copy of another inevitably obsolete document.

These contradictions and delusions which pervade the ATFP’s policy program are similarly present in the organization itself. According to their audited financial statements, the ATFP is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, not-for-profit corporation. Generally, US-based charities, foundations, think-tanks, and lobbies have this status. However, a review of their activities reveals that the ATFP cannot convincingly be characterized as belonging to any of these categories. While their website boasts “Over $155,000 Raised” for the “Palestinian Humanitarian Fund,” the ATFP does not reveal over what time period this meager sum was raised or more importantly how and when it was dispersed. It is only by visiting the website of the nascent American Charities for Palestine (ACP), a recently established sister organization which shares board members with the ATFP, that this information is revealed. [7] In comparison, the United Palestinian Appeal raised $1.39 million in 2005 alone and its annual report details how funds were distributed. [8]

The ATFP’s intellectual production has also been inconsistent in comparison to well-established Washington-based think-tanks. Although the organization is four years old, their activities have been sparse, increasing only in the last twelve months. For example, during Israel’s invasions of Lebanon and Gaza last summer, their website lists not a single media appearance. In addition, the ATFP staff published only two opinion pieces during this time, neither of which was in a major American media outlet. Based on their mission statement, one would assume that their target audience would read the US media, and not that of Lebanon or Jordan. [9]

While some would confuse the ATFP with a lobby, a quick glance over their activities and audited financials reveals that this vastly overstates their influence and access. They have none of the wealth, community outreach, or presence among Washington policy makers and political leaders as other lobbies. [10] Therefore, it is highly unlikely that they would be capable of influencing a change in US policy toward the Palestinians. Nor is that really their goal. Rather, they hope to change Palestinian attitudes toward US foreign policy.

The ATFP’s true strategy has been on display over the past month in the “Issue” and “Policy” papers published on their website and opinion essays in Lebanon’s The Daily Star and The Jordan Times by their staff members Rafi Dajani and Hussein Ibish. Collectively, these writings suffer from a paternalistic tone and are riddled with inane and contradictory claims, glaring omissions, and factual errors that serve to undermine any pretense of impartiality. Their shared theme amounts to a defense of Abbas’ strategy of deference and obsequiousness to the US and Israel, under the guise of “political realities” and a “realistic hope for the future of Palestine.” According to Ibish’s issue paper, Abbas’ problem is not that he is a failed, corrupt and ineffectual leader who appears to Palestinians as an eager American tool, but that he is “uninspiring” and “lacks the charisma that many politicians rely upon, and is not an emotive speaker.” [11] As part of this pathetic defense, the ATFP attempts to conflate the PA with the PLO and both bodies with Fatah. Therefore, anyone critical of these organizations and their leadership is either a Hamas supporter or is unwittingly serving their cause. Moreover, they claim that these criticisms only serve to prolong Israel’s occupation and undermine Palestinian aspirations. [12] That these are facile assertions, which ignore that the vast majority of Palestinians living under occupation or in the Diaspora prefer national unity over factionalism is irrelevant. In the current American and Palestinian political climate, these accusations are designed to intimidate and silence dissent in the Palestinian community by labeling them as Hamas loyalists whose “rhetoric could have a decidedly negative influence” (i.e., incite violence and support terror) and who are “taking their lead from others in the Middle East” (i.e., Tehran). [13]

Another ATFP goal is to frighten secular leftists with the threat of a theocracy emerging in Palestine. In doing so, they deliberately ignore the presence of a thugocracy in Palestinian politics as embodied by Mohammad Dahlan, Jabril Rajoub and their ilk, which presents an equal, if not greater threat, to the independent, viable and democratic Palestinian state the ATFP contends it supports. This tactic is justified by the claim that a secular Palestinian state even if “not necessarily fully democratic at the outset would be hardly as repressive as a theocracy.” [14] Ibish also intentionally overlooks the presence of American Lt. General Keith Dayton, who has been training Fatah militias for over a year for the express purpose of confronting Hamas with the enthusiastic support of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. Conveniently, Dahlan, Rajoub, and Dayton are absent from Ibish’s 9,000 word screed. Thus, the ATFP’s idea of an independent secular Palestinian state is a US-backed government of thieves and their enforcers — definitely not what Palestinians believe “liberation looks like.” [15]

Historically, national liberation movements have only been successful when their political parties had a unified strategy. However, instead of advocating for national unity as a way out of the current political crisis, Ibish derides reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas as “utopian.” [16] It is telling that while a number of foreign policy experts and policy makers, including Israelis and Americans, have argued that an accommodation is needed between the two parties, the ATFP and Abbas have ruled this out. Rather, Ibish offers non-partisan Palestinians an unappealing and ultimately false choice: either embrace Hamas, which doesn’t have a political program and is now barred from joining the PLO, or ally with Fatah, whose political platform has been on sale to the highest bidder since the Oslo Accords. Therefore, according to the ATFP’s line of reasoning, Palestinians can prevent “unending conflict and untold suffering” and achieve independence only by supporting Fatah and forsaking Hamas. [17]

Their final objective is to present the ATFP as “moderate” and “respectable” with a policy program steeped in the “Palestinian and American reality,” where there is no alternative to Abbas’ rule, American hyperpower, and Israel’s military and economic dominance in the Middle East. As Dajani and co-author Gaith Al-Omari explain, only by embracing “realistic solutions, not idealistic fantasies” can Palestinians hope to end their “daily misery and humiliation.” [18] These “realistic solutions” are on display in an obscene policy document intended to help Palestinians define the “success” of the November “meeting.” Permeated with vapid corporate-speak, this “roadmap redux” promotes “process” over peace, and “deliverables” and “benchmarks” over rights and freedom. Indeed, “process” is referenced nearly 30 times, while “occupation,” “justice” and “rights” are not mentioned at all. [19] No rights, no freedom, no justice, no peace: this is what the ATFP’s “liberation” will be. Should anyone object, Dajani and Al-Omari warn that “national decisions will be taken by Palestinians living in the homeland based on their own considerations of reality and achievability and their economic and political interests, not on the visions of purity advocated by a distant and detached diaspora.” [20] Again employing the politics of fear, the ATFP contends that any critics of the current Palestinian leadership will find themselves stranded on the roadside of both the American and Palestinian political systems.

This strategy might be effective if the ATFP had any credibility and if their version of advocacy wasn’t centered on the polo grounds, vineyards, and expensive black-tie galas where they honor their own members and are hailed by Abbas. [21] In this country club atmosphere, Palestine and the Palestinian experience is used as a prop, much like the expensive Washington, D.C. address and view of the White House that figures prominently on the ATFP’s webpage. That their approach will only appeal to the denizens of the “Palestinian Green Zone” in Ramallah — an area comprised of the Muqataa and the nearby bars and restaurants frequented by the oligarchs and officials associated with the PA — but will find little support elsewhere is immaterial. After all, this is an organization which invited and embraced Condoleezza Rice as the keynote speaker of their “Inaugural Gala” less than three months after her infamous “birth pangs of the new Middle East” press conference and while Israel continued its attacks on Gaza. Yet, as the above quotations demonstrate, that Rice offered a more complimentary and accurate depiction of the Palestinian people than the ATFP’s president reveals how the organization truly views those it alleges to represent.

Although the ATFP is correct to assert that Palestinian-Americans have a right and a duty to engage in the American political process, the cost of entry is not their dignity or souls. Unlike the ATFP, Palestinians understand the difference between getting their “hands a bit dirty” through activism and building institutions, and sullying them by associating with thugs, collaborators, and corrupt and inept politicians. [22] Participating in the American political system does not require you to fawn over Rice or other dignitaries and parrot their rhetoric in the vain hope that they will deign to reward the Palestinians with a state. Nor does it necessitate that you praise Abbas as a man of “personal and political courage.” [23] No truly independent nation has emerged because its population was supplicant and subservient, nor should that be the criteria for the Palestinians. Moreover, it is vital that anyone advocating for a particular ethnic or religious group in the United States recognize when they are being used by interests whose goals are antithetical to those whom they purport to represent. Until the ATFP begins to act like a true advocate for Palestinians rather than a front for Abbas and the PA, it deserves to be shunned as intellectually, politically, and morally bankrupt. Indeed, even referring to the ATFP as a diplomatic front is too complimentary: the organization is a joke and a bad one at that. But like all bad jokes no one is laughing. These are serious times and Palestinians face dire circumstances that require real leadership and effective organizations to represent them in the US and on the world stage. Ridding themselves of Abbas and his cronies and creating a national unity body representative of all Palestinians are the necessary steps toward ending the rule of the old guard and freedom from the politics of fear and intimidation they have employed for far too long.

Osamah Khalil is a Palestinian-American doctoral candidate in US and Middle East History at the University of California at Berkeley, focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at okhalil@berkeley.edu.

[1] http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/73895.htm
[2] World Media Association Forum, “The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth,” The US Media and the Middle East: Focus on Israel and Palestine. 1 August 2007. (http://www.americantaskforce.org/wma8107.php
[3] http://www.americantaskforce.org/mission.php
[4] Weymouth, Lilly, “A Conversation with Mahmoud Abbas,” The Washington Post, 30 September 2007.
[5] Ibish, Hussein, “Sense, Nonsense and Strategy in the New Palestinian Political Landscape.” American Task Force on Palestine Issue Paper, 7 September 2007. (http://www.americantaskforce.org/ibish/ibishfinal.htm) An excerpt from this issue paper was published as “Defend the Palestinian Cause Against its Most Unreasonable Supporters,” The Daily Star, 14 September 2007.
[6] Maconald, Alastair and Heller, Jeffrey, “Israeli PM Confronts Critics, Rice Pushes Peace Deal,” Reuters, 20 September 2007. Gearan, Anne, “Rice Glosses Over Mideast Differences,” Associated Press, 20 September 2007.
[7] According to the ACP website donations to the Palestinian Humanitarian Fund were given to the Dar El-Tifl charity in Jerusalem, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, St. Luke’s Hospital in Nablus, Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem, and United Palestinian Appeal. Founded in 2007, the ACP claims that it will “expand on and replace the Palestine Humanitarian Fund.” Among the board members the ACP shares with the ATFP are Dr. Ziad and Naila Asali.
[8] United Palestinian Appeal, 2005 Annual Report. (http://helpupa.com/news/upa00031.shtml) Note: This is the most recent report available.
[9] According to the ATFP’s “Media” page, these essays were: Asali, Ziad, “Dangerous Liaisons of Hamas’ Exiles,” The Daily Star 30 June 2006; Idem. “To Strengthen the Moderates,” Jordan Times, 7 July 2006.
[10] According to their audited financials, in 2003 the ATFP had $334,678 in revenues and $177,528 in expenses. By 2006 this increased to revenues of $655,589 and expenses of $570,893. In comparison, AIPAC has an estimated annual budget of $30 to $40 million dollars. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
[11] Ibish, “Sense.”
[12] Ibid.; American Task Force on Palestine Policy Focus, “Palestinian National Unity: The Question of Hamas,” 29 August 2007. (http://www.americantaskforce.org/policypaper1.php)
[13] Ibish, “Sense.”
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Dajani, Rafi and Al Omari, Gaith, “Challenges Facing the Palestinian-American Community,” The Jordan Times, 24 September 2007.
[19] American Task Force on Palestine, “Policy Focus. Defining Success: The Fall Mid-East Meeting,” 2 October 2007. (http://www.americantaskforce.org/policypaper2.php)
[20] Dajani and Al Omari, “Challenges.”
[21] Tickets for the Inaugural Gala “Towards Peace and Prosperity” were $200 per person. (http://www.americantaskforce.org/gala/) Tickets for this year’s gala, “Choosing Peace, Embracing Hope” are $250. According to the invitation, “A portion of Gala proceeds will be donated to the American Charities for Palestine.” (http://www.americantaskforce.org/gala2007/)
[22] Dajani and Al Omari, “Challenges.”
[23] Ibish, “Sense.”