Top Palestinian Activist To Address Policy Conference

By Ori Nir

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — America’s largest Jewish policymaking body will host an unlikely guest at its annual gathering this weekend in Washington: the head of America’s most prominent pro-Palestinian advocacy group.

Ziad Asali, founder and president of the American Task Force on Palestine, will participate in a special discussion on March 1 at the annual policy plenum of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, a policy coordinating body that brings together 13 national organizations and 123 local Jewish communities. It will be the first time in more than a decade that the JCPA gathering has included such a discussion on whether American Jews and Arabs can work together for Middle East peace.

“The question we are posing is: Given our very different narratives and perspectives on the Middle East situation, is there enough common ground now for us to come together and support the efforts for peace?” said Martin Raffel, the JCPA’s associate executive director.

Asali’s answer is a resounding “yes.”

Since he established the Task Force, more than two years ago, the 63-year-old retired physician has been calling for Arabs — both in the Middle East and in America — to reach out to American Jews and work together for peace. The American Jewish community’s support of a two-state solution is “essential” for any viable peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians, he said in a recent interview with the Forward.

“If we do not reassure [American] Jews that what we are striving for is a Palestinian state that will live in peace, security and respect alongside an Israeli Jewish state, then we simply cannot proceed” toward realizing that goal, he said. That process, Asali said, should be based on building both personal and organizational rapport between the two communities, and on charting the political common ground.

Both communities, Asali said, should start by simply getting to know each other, by breaking the wall of stereotyping and dehumanization that divides them. “We all suffer from the sin of synecdoche” — the tendency to attribute the characteristics of a part to the whole. “In fact, each community is more moderate and pragmatic than the other may think, and in both communities the majority wants what is good for America and what’s good for both peoples in the region.”

Asali said that the place where the national security interests of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians meet is where he tries to position his organization. In 2003, after three years as the president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and nine years of heading other national Arab-American groups, Asali decided to establish an organization that would stand out in several ways: It would focus on achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, operate as a political advocacy group and avoid direct attacks on the close relationship Israel enjoys with the United States.

In the face of raging Israeli-Palestinian violence during the past four years, Asali’s approach resonated in Washington. It was well crafted to fit President Bush’s two-state vision, which has made Palestinian statehood an American national security priority. It became even more palatable in Washington after Israel’s leaders, advocating for the pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, talked about ending the occupation as a chief Israeli national security objective.

Asali’s moderate voice and solid contacts with the Bush administration and Congress have turned this mild-mannered Jerusalem-born physician into the most visible spokesman for the Palestinians in Washington in recent months. Together with Washington lawyer and Republican activist George Salem, who is on the board of the relatively new pro-Palestinian organization, Asali was chosen by the White House to represent America on the official three-person U.S. delegation to Yasser Arafat’s funeral. He and Salem, along with two senators, Republican John Sununu of New Hampshire and Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware, were part of the official American delegation sent to the region last month to monitor the Palestinian Authority presidential elections. And earlier this month, he was invited to testify before a congressional committee on the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, joining former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross.

At the hearing, he voiced some unorthodox views: One was that American financial assistance to the Palestinians should be conditioned on aid from oil-rich Gulf states; another was that Palestinians “absolutely should fulfill all their obligations,” as stipulated in the road map peace plan “without delay.” Asali also argued that the question of Israeli security is “not negotiable.”

It was another statement, however, that got the Palestinian activist invited to speak at the JCPA’s annual plenum.

At a press briefing following his trip to monitor the Palestinian elections, Asali said that Palestinians should come to terms with the fact that they would not be able to realize their “right of return” to their old homes in Israel.

The JCPA’s Raffel, who was watching the briefing on television, said: “When I heard that, I jumped from my chair. I said, ‘Hey, that’s a guy I can do business with.’”

Asali, who was six when his family fled Jerusalem in the spring of 1948, says he knows full well how unpopular this position is among Palestinians. His mother, he says, died with the key to their Jerusalem home under her pillow. “But we must now separate the right from the return,” he said. The moral right of refugees to recover their properties, he said, should be addressed by a combination of compensation and an Israeli acknowledgement of the wrong that was done to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians. “But in terms of an actual return, well, there is really nothing to return to. It’s Israel now.”

According to several Palestinian-American activists who were interviewed for this story, Asali’s moderate views do not cast a shadow over his credibility. Some of his views might be controversial, “‘but he is widely respected, and that’s unusual in a community that is so internally divided,” said a prominent Palestinian-American activist.

Asali believes that speaking his mind enhances his credibility. “I am fed-up with making points or scoring points in political debates,” he said. “I understand the young [pro-Palestinian] students who scream on university campuses. I know what they are talking about. And I also know that they don’t know what they are talking about.” Palestinians and their friends in America, he said, should quit focusing on grievances of the past and instead do their best “to avoid the disasters of the future.”

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