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Pro-Palestinian Advocates Sense Winds of Change in Washington

Changes in America’s policy toward the Middle East conflict are sending positive vibrations throughout the small and struggling pro-Palestinian advocacy community.

Ghaith Al-Omari Image by Courtesy of ATFP

Activists for the Palestinian cause, who are now describing President Obama’s outreach speech to the Muslim world as “brilliant” and “brave,” are feeling emboldened by a new sense of openness within the administration. Some even have the satisfaction of having had input in the process of preparing the speech itself. A pro-Palestinian organization was among those invited to take part in a group meeting with White House staff to prepare the June 4 speech. Other activists spoke of their feeling that Washington is taking a real interest in them for the first time in years.

After Obama’s inauguration, “There was definitely a change in the manner in which public discourse in Washington is being conducted,” said Kareem Shora, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Shora said he and his colleagues feel the administration is “adding seats around the table” and is willing to listen to more views on Middle East policy.

Shora himself recently experienced this openness when Secretary Janet Napolitano appointed him member of the homeland security advisory council.

The difficulties facing pro-Palestinian advocates are demonstrated in a recent Zogby International poll gauging American public opinion toward key Middle East players. The poll found that only 25% of Americans view Palestinians favorably, whereas positive views of Israelis are shared by 71%. While almost half the respondents in the poll said they wanted to see Obama steer a middle course when dealing with the conflict, a third preferred he lean toward Israel, and only 9% would like to see him lean toward the Palestinians.

Despite this unwelcoming backdrop, Maen Areikat, the new top Palestinian representative in Washington, believes that the new administration’s approach could make his mission easier. “I have encountered no difficulties reaching out and communicating our message. We have good ties with people in the administration,” said Areikat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission to the United States, in an interview with the Forward.

Areikat, 48, comes to the post after nurturing strong ties to American officials during his previous positions with the PLO negotiating team. He is also considered to be close to Palestine’s president, Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinians had no representative in Washington for the past year, since former ambassador Afif Safieh’s term ended.

Born in Jericho to a family deeply involved in Palestinian politics, Areikat became active at an early age and spent two short terms in Israeli prisons as a teenager. The PLO delegation did not provide any details relating to this.

Educated at American universities, Areikat has ties with America that tightened upon returning home, when he joined the international department of the Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in East Jerusalem. There, Areikat was in charge of relations with English-speaking countries, working under Faisal Husseini, the former head of the PLO office in East Jerusalem, who was known for his pragmatic approach to peacemaking and was at times at odds with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Edward Abington, a former Washington lobbyist for the Palestinian Authority, noted that Areikat has “extensive contacts” on Capitol Hill, in the State Department and National Security Council, and with Washington think tanks and the media. These ties were forged in Areikat’s numerous trips to the United States while representing the Palestinian negotiating team in the Middle East peace process and serving de facto as one of several young English speakers seen as the P.A.’s face in America.

Areikat admits he faces “a daunting task” as the chief Palestinian diplomat in Washington, but he said he senses willingness both in the administration and in Congress to listen to the Palestinian point of view and to discuss ways of solving the conflict. “I don’t believe they will close the door in the face of people like me, who want to advance our mutual interests,” he said.

Obama’s Cairo speech, in which he spoke emphatically about the Palestinian right for statehood, as well as his insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze, has made pro-Palestinian activists believe that change is in the air.

Yet, surprisingly, the sudden success in getting the Palestinian message through has many in the pro-Palestinian advocacy community concerned.

“The Palestinians should not sour U.S.–Israeli relations. That will not help anyone,” said Ghaith Al-Omari, advocacy director for the American Task Force on Palestine, a group now seen as the leading pro-Palestinian voice in Washington. He warned against Arab groups “gloating,” and expressed concern that one-sided pressure could lead to an “adversarial approach.” Al-Omari, a former Palestinian peace negotiator, recently participated in White House discussions in preparation of the Cairo speech.

He stressed that it would be a mistake for the administration and Congress to be seen as anti-Israeli. “It’s one thing for Congress to support a settlement freeze, but it will be a whole different story if the administration will be portrayed as leaning too strong on Israel.”

Areikat agrees. “I don’t like the word ‘pressure,’” he said. “This won’t help with either side.” The senior Palestinian representative cautioned that balance is needed in the administration’s approach to the conflict. “It won’t work if one side gets all its demands at the expense of the other side,” Areikat said.

This view seems at odds with statements by Abbas, who, in a May 29 interview with The Washington Post, said he believes that the Palestinians now need to sit and wait while the Obama administration pressures Israel to freeze settlement activity. Privately, advocates for the P.A. voice aggravation with the interview’s fallout.

Concerns within the pro-Palestinian community over the possibility of counterproductive administration pressure on Israel may stem from a surprising source: a little-known rapprochement process taking place between pro-Palestinian groups and Jewish organizations.

Palestinian activists have made a concerted effort to reach out to American Jews and to seek cooperation in promoting a two-state solution. While most of their outreach has focused on dovish Jewish organizations, Palestinians also have been trying to work with mainstream Jewish groups and with the pro-Israel lobby.

Together with Ziad Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, Al-Omari attended the May 4 gala dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an event seen as the annual show of force for pro-Israel advocacy. ATFP also holds regular meetings with AIPAC staff members.

In December 2008, while he was serving on the PLO negotiating team, Areikat led a group of Palestinian officials who met with AIPAC board members in Washington. The AIPAC board members were later hosted by PLO officials in Ramallah.

Areikat believes that a new spirit in the Washington and Palestinian outreach efforts will help sway American public opinion toward more understanding of the Palestinian cause. “Americans are open-minded. They want to see the Palestinians treated justly while Israel remains protected,” he said.

Graeme Bannerman, adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a veteran observer of America’s Middle East policy, remains skeptical. Bannerman, whose former lobbying firm used to represent Palestinian interests in Washington, believes that at the end of the day, Palestinian interests will always come second to those of Israel in the Washington scene.

“Any staffer dealing with foreign policy on the Hill will tell you that 70% of the e-mails he gets are about the Middle East and 90% of them are pro-Israel,” Bannerman said. “So eventually, the discussion will always be on what concerns the Israelis, not the Palestinians.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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