Task Force Changes Mideast Debate

Pro-Palestine Group Recasts Peace as Essential to U.S.

On Message: Secretary Clinton spoke at the group’s gala.
Agence France-Presse
On Message: Secretary Clinton spoke at the group’s gala.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 09, 2011, issue of February 18, 2011.
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As developments in Egypt move many Israelis to become more wary of a peace process that will require them to give up occupied land and Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Palestinian advocates for a two-state solution in Washington are struggling to persuade Israel’s supporters that the opposite is true.

For the American Task Force on Palestine, the main lesson of the Egyptian revolution is that efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement need to be redoubled if Israel hopes to avoid greater regional isolation, and that focusing American attention on the conflict is more crucial now than ever before.

The Task Force, which reframes two-state advocacy in terms of U.S. national interests, increasingly is taking a lead role in the Palestinians’ effort to promote resolution of their conflict with Israel as a key U.S. foreign policy goal. The organization’s courtship of Jewish organizations has also won it attention.

In particular, the group advocates a “bottom up” approach for Palestinian statehood that is now being carried out by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

But adopting a moderate line and cozying up to the establishment has come with a price. Some pro-Palestinian advocates have been criticizing ATFP, claiming its prime concern has shifted to pleasing the Obama administration, not listening to the Palestinian people. Ziad Asali, the group’s founder and president, is used to brushing off such criticism. “I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest under my tuxedo,” Asali joked as he greeted guests to at the group’s annual gala in October, an event that’s become important to Washington’s Middle East peace community.

ATFP’s coalition-building approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was demonstrated in a January 25 article published in the New York Times by the group’s senior research fellow, Hussein Ibish, and Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent of The Atlantic, who is known for his strong support for Israel. The Op-Ed piece listed measures both Palestinians and Israelis can take to improve the situation on the ground without rattling the political balance on either side.

But the article’s importance, said Ibish, is not only in its content, but also in its byline. “What’s new here is to see such a level of agreement between a well-known Jewish American writer and a fairly well-known Arab American writer,” Ibish said in an interview. The article’s attempt to find middle ground between Israelis and Palestinians led to a barrage of criticism against Ibish, who was described by left-leaning pundit M.J. Rosenberg as suffering from “Stockholm syndrome,” a psychological condition in which hostages develop sympathy for their captors.

“Had I thought there were more dramatic steps that are plausible in the current situation, I’d say so,” responded Ibish, who stressed that the article is a practical attempt to take into consideration political limitations on both sides.

Fayyad’s plan, which has won praise from Americans and Israelis, stresses the need to build Palestinian governance instead of focusing exclusively on negotiating a final status agreement. Under this plan, the Palestinian Authority has moved to reform its legal system, increased law enforcement efforts in the West Bank and is moving toward greater transparency and accountability. The Palestinian Authority also has significantly increased its work to counter terrorism and has been cooperating with Israeli security forces to further that goal.

ATFP has taken on this plan as a key advocacy issue and succeeded, in the past year, in selling it to a U.S. administration that initially viewed the Fayyad program as positive but not essential to the peace process. Now, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make sure to mention the plan in every speech they give on Middle East issues, describing Palestinian nation-building as a key element of U.S. policy in the region.

“We are gratified that the Fayyad plan, which we had adopted in an early stage, is now part of the administration’s policy,” Asali told the Forward. He said the plan is attractive because it helps Palestinians empower themselves and gain respect worldwide. “It is a major instrument to enhance Palestinian stature,” he said. “There is no other option, there is no military option.”

But the plan has its detractors.

In an article published on January 20 in the New York Review of Books, authors Robert Malley and Hussein Agha point out the perils of a “bottom up” approach, especially the concern among some Palestinians that “by normalizing the situation on the West Bank, it could enable the perpetuation of the status quo at low cost and with diminished international attention.” The article served as a reminder that ATFP’s approach is not shared by all.

Since 2003 when ATFP was founded, the group’s principles have been to define a two-state solution as part of the American national interest and to play by the rules of the U.S. issue-advocacy system. Adhering to these principles meant making clear that being pro-Palestinian does not mean opposing Israel, but only its occupation policy. It also led the group to adopt a nuanced approach toward the refugee issue, essentially separating right of return from the actual return of Palestinian refugees to the land they claim.

Asali said ATFP deliberately chose to be a Washington-centered policy group rather than a grassroots oriented organization “because we knew our approach would be controversial.” He described the views of some in the Palestinian diaspora in the U.S. as being “holier than thou.”

The Task Force operates on an annual budget of less than $800,000, significantly less than similar advocacy organizations on the Jewish side.

Among ATFP actions that have set it apart from other pro-Palestinian groups is the group’s decision to actively pursue a relationship with Jewish organizations and pro-Israel groups. The Task Force began by partnering with Americans for Peace Now, a dovish Jewish organization advocating for a two-state solution. The two organizations hold shared events and briefings and even ran a joint internship program. But the partnerships do not end there.

Asali and other ATFP activists have become familiar faces at pro-Israel gatherings, including the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, America’s largest pro-Israel parley. The group has forged ties with other mainstream organizations as well, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, both known for leaning to the hawkish side on issues relating to Israel.

Ibish, who was involved in many of these talks, still feels that more can be done. “We are in a minority when we urge the Palestinians what not to do,” he said, “and I think that American Jews can do more in adopting a similar approach toward Israel.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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