WASHINGTON — Facing criticism for hosting prominent Fatah activists at the Washington think tank he heads, former special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross defended inviting them in a letter to the institute’s board of trustees in which he wrote that government decision-makers should be exposed to authentic Palestinian leaders.
Ross, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was criticized by several right-wing commentators in Israel for providing a podium to Palestinian activists associated with Fatah’s Tanzim militia, which has been actively engaged in anti-Israeli violence during the past three years of the Palestinian intifada. That criticism was echoed by several of the 300 members of the solidly pro-Israel institute’s board of trustees.
Several of the institute’s board members who are known to have been privately critical of the invitation declined to publicly comment on the controversy. “It would be inappropriate for me to speak on this,” said board member Martin Gross of New Jersey.
The Zionist Organization of America blasted Ross and the institute in an October 27 press release, accusing them of “embracing” a “Fatah terrorist delegation.” The press release noted that one of the three, Hatem Abdul Kader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, was quoted in a Palestinian newspaper saying, “We do not reject the suicide operations. But these actions must be carried out in a way that fits the goals.”
Inviting these individuals to Washington legitimizes terrorism, the ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, told the Forward. Klein, who is not affiliated with the institute, noted that groups associated with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party have claimed responsibility for killing hundreds of Israeli civilians during the past three years.
The three Palestinians, Palestinian Legislative Council members Kader and Kadoura Fares and Ahmed Ghaneim, a Fatah activist from East Jerusalem, have spoken in support of armed resistance against Israel’s rule of the territories, but are not suspected of involvement in violence.
Ross, who served as the Clinton administration’s point man on the Middle East peace process, defended the invitation to the three Palestinians in his letter to the institute’s trustees, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward. He wrote that in his many years in the Middle East he has learned that “there is tremendous capacity for distortion and misunderstanding.” He continued, “that is apparently happening now with three members of the younger Fatah leadership from the Territories that we have brought to Washington at my invitation.”
Ross wrote that the three Palestinians are leaders of the push for democracy and reform in the Palestinian Authority and critics of corruption within the P.A. “This group has authenticity and wants to make peace with Israel,” Ross wrote.
“If Arafat is irredeemable, it is important to focus on a younger generation,” he wrote.
The three met in Washington with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, with several legislators and staffers on Capitol Hill and with representatives of Jewish organizations. They also spoke at the Washington Institute, where they called for a cease-fire with Israel and complained that neither Israel’s government nor the Bush administration are willing to negotiate terms for such a cease-fire.
Ross told the Forward that he had “no regrets” about inviting the three Palestinians to the institute.
“I wrote the letter to the trustees because I was getting some questions about the Fatah members. I felt it appropriate to explain to the trustees the importance of their visit,” Ross told the Forward. “The Washington Institute prides itself on being ahead of the curve in terms of recognizing the potential for change and trying to shape it. If there is going to be a democratic Palestinian state at some point, it will be led by people like those we brought to the institute; it is better for them to know now what Americans can support and not support than for them to discover this only later.”