Low Profile Hurting Abbas in Congress

By Ori Nir

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — For Senator Joseph Biden, trying to help Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has been a priority — and a frustration — for the past six months.

Biden, a Delaware Democrat and arguably his party’s most respected voice on foreign affairs, met with Abbas in January, on the eve of the Palestinian presidential election. Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Abbas to find out how the United States could help bolster the credibility of his fledgling government.

Abbas said he needed both political and financial assistance from Washington, and Biden asked for a list of development projects that could be funded with American dollars. The Palestinian leader promised to get a list to Biden the next day. Five months later the material has not yet reached Biden’s desk, despite the senator’s many follow-up requests.

Biden could only watch in frustration as the Senate and House of Representatives considered and passed an emergency spending bill that included aid to the Palestinians — but less than what President Bush had asked for and with strings attached that ensured that none of the money will go to the P.A. directly.

“It’s frustrating,” said Norm Kurz, Biden’s press secretary, who confirmed the story. “Senator Biden would like to be able to provide Abbas that kind of assistance, and [the Palestinians] are not doing much to help themselves.”

The story underscores the difficult task that Abbas faces as he prepares for his first visit to Washington since his election. Not only must Abbas seek to strengthen his relations with President Bush, with whom he is scheduled to meet in the White House later this month, but Abbas also must try to overcome the suspicion toward the Palestinians that is so deeply rooted on Capitol Hill — and in the American public — even after Yasser Arafat’s death.

Abbas and his supporters have had very little presence on Capitol Hill since January. “There hasn’t been a concerted effort [by the Palestinians] to let people in America know that there are changes taking place under Abbas. And absent such an education effort, it is very difficult to change the operating disk on Capitol Hill,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. His group and the Israel Policy Forum — two predominantly Jewish organizations — took the lead in the failed lobbying effort to secure direct financial assistance for Abbas, better known by his nom-de-guerre, Abu Mazen.

“It really would have helped to have an ongoing effort from the Palestinians to make the case about what Abu Mazen is doing” to improve security and institute reform, as well as to explain the importance of boosting his legitimacy and credibility with American aid, Roth said. If the Palestinians were counting on the Bush administration to lobby for them, Roth added, they clearly miscalculated: The White House was all but absent from deliberations in Congress during the negotiations over the Palestinian aid package.

Roth said that while American Jewish groups can make a case for why direct aid to the Palestinians is good for Israel and good for America, they can’t show legislators the new Palestinian face. “It’s not for us to do that,” he added. “That’s something they have to do.”

Pro-Palestinian activists and observers offered several reasons for the failure of Abbas and his government to take the initiative in Washington.

Samar Assad, the newly appointed executive director of Washington’s Palestine Center, a pro-Palestinian think tank, attributed the problems to a combination of ineptness, ignorance and distractedness, as well as a sense of hopelessness in the face of Congress’s traditional pro-Israel bent. The Palestinian leadership “hasn’t yet grasped the actual importance of the physical work in Congress,” she said. “I think they have given up on Congress. They think that it’s a pro-Israeli body, and they think they should just focus on the administration. They are not realizing that Congress can tie the hands of the administration.”

In addition, Assad said, Palestinian leaders have not been focused on the American aid package. Abbas is facing an existential political challenge from his Islamic opposition, and he has been scrambling to maintain the shaky cease-fire agreement he has achieved with Hamas and other militant groups. “He hardly had a chance to focus on this,” Assad said. Add to this the infighting in the Palestinian bureaucracy, including in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission to Washington, and you get a situation where “they don’t need someone to work against them; they are working against themselves,” Assad said.

The PLO mission to Washington is viewed widely as ineffective: It is fraught with infighting, and its staffers are hardly seen on Capitol Hill, congressional sources and pro-Palestinian activists in Washington said.

“They have a very low profile,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat and the ranking Democratic member of the House’s International Relations’ Middle East and Central Asia subcommittee.

Unlike most Jewish members of Congress, Ackerman has been enthusiastically supportive of extending direct aid to Abbas and eager to help the Palestinians obtain it.

“They don’t contact any offices. I can’t remember ever receiving a memo from them or anything else,” Ackerman said, adding, “They don’t do anything on the Hill. They don’t come around asking for money. You don’t see them.”

The head of the PLO’s mission in Washington, Hasan Abdul-Rahman, who is often referred to as the Palestinian ambassador to Washington, did not return calls seeking comment.

In addition to the P.A.’s shortcomings, pro-Palestinian grass-roots lobbying is nearly nonexistent. Unlike American Jews, who compulsively lobby Washington to support Israel, Arab Americans are extremely focused on their own civil rights. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the nation’s chief Arab-American grass-roots organization, has been only marginally involved with lobbying for the Palestinian aid package, said its legislative director, Christine Gleichert.

Hussein Ibish, ADC’s former communications director, said that his new professional home — the American Task Force on Palestine, a small and relatively new pro-Palestinian advocacy group — has been active on the issue, but its influence in Washington is still modest.

What the P.A. does have in Washington is a lobbying firm, Bannerman & Associates, Inc., which is a registered agent in the service of several foreign governments. Bannerman lobbyists, who work both Capitol Hill and the administration, have also voiced frustration over the Palestinians’ meager efforts to influence Washington. “Part of the problem with the Hill is that you need to come to Washington and work it,” said Edward Abington, Bannerman’s chief lobbyist on Palestinian affairs. A former State Department official, Abington served as America’s consul-general in Jerusalem. He said it has been very difficult to get the Palestinians and the P.A. “to come to Washington and take things seriously.”

This Palestinian weakness sticks out when compared to Israel’s efficient lobbying operation in Washington. “If the Israelis are a Cadillac, the Palestinians are an old Volkswagen beetle without an engine,” Abington said.

According to multiple sources, the P.A. is about to redouble its diplomatic efforts in Washington. Recently Abbas appointed a new, skilled chief of staff to handle external relations. His new foreign minister, Nasser al-Kidwa, who formerly headed the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations, has just ordered the rotation of all PLO heads of missions worldwide, including Abdul-Rahman. There is widespread talk of the Palestinians boosting their mission to Washington. “They are making slow progress,” Abington said, “but it’s painfully slow.”

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