Washington - Last week, when a congressional committee rejected a bid to provide $10 million for a Palestinian children’s program, something unusual happened: nothing.
In the past, such bills have been urged along by Palestinian lobbyists in Washington. But this time around, congressional staffers said that there was no effort on behalf of the Palestinians to fight the cut, or even to follow the appropriation process in the committee. The lack of attention underscores the recent collapse of the Palestinian lobbying operation in Washington, at the very time when the Palestinians seem in greatest need of American support.
“The year 2006 was very frustrating,” said Edward Abington, the former lobbyist for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abington ended his ties with Abbas in January.
“In the ’90s — and even during the intifada — there was much more receptivity,” Abington said. “There was a feeling you could move forward.”
Palestinian advocacy has always paled in comparison to the pro-Israel lobbying machine in Washington, but in recent months the Palestinian effort has reached a new low. Many of the current difficulties began with the electoral victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Authority legislative elections. Before those elections, the Palestinian government and the mission in Washington were both run by the Palestine Liberation Organization and its political arm, the Fatah party. When Hamas defeated Fatah in the elections, there was no mechanism for changing the affiliation of the mission, and the Hamas-led government was thus left without an official representative in Washington.
Abington and his firm, Bannerman & Associates, had worked for the Palestinian Authority, but after the Hamas victory, Abington ended this arrangement and re-registered as a representative of only Abbas.
Abginton, a former United States consul general in Jerusalem who took on the Palestinian portfolio in 1999, said that even with the change in registration, almost every door in Washington was closed to Palestinian lobbyists after the Hamas win. Whatever help Abington could provide ended in January, when he ended his contract with the Palestinians due to financial disagreements and what Abington characterizes as “the disorganized manner” of the Palestinian operation.
“Those guys in Ramallah are living in a bubble; they don’t understand how Washington works and what we are doing for them over here,” Abington told the Forward in a phone interview from his home in the Netherlands, where he now lives.
Since Abington’s departure, the P.A. has not attempted to hire a new lobbyist in Washington and currently does not have any professional representation in the nation’s capital. Sources close to the issue cited financial difficulties as the key problem in retaining a lobbying firm. According to press reports, the Palestinian budget for advocacy in Washington had climbed to more than $2 million, a sum that was not tenable for the cash-strapped P.A.
The Palestinian government also faces legal difficulties in transferring money to America because of lawsuits against the Palestinian Authority. A significant part of the Palestinian transactions in the United States is done in cash, and payments to staff and suppliers require — as one Palestinian source described it — “a great amount of creativity.”
One of the clearest instances of the missing Palestinian voice came last week during the debate of the $10 million for the Child Survival & Health grant in the House Appropriations Committee. In addition, though, other Palestinian causes have also undergone cuts in Congress in recent months.
Since Abington’s departure, there has continued to be some Palestinian presence in Washington. The PLO has its formal mission in Washington, but it is not considered a full diplomatic mission and is seen as more of a symbolic presence.
Another voice is the American Task Force on Palestine, a not-for-profit advocacy group. The task force, which is led by Ziad Asali, does not lobby on behalf of the Palestinian government or on behalf of specific legislation, but instead advocates the more general idea of a two state solution.
Asali expressed some hope about the prospect of promoting Palestinian issues in America. He believes that with the separation between Fatah and Hamas during recent weeks of fighting, the Fatah-led government in the West Bank is “now unshackling itself from the albatross that was around its neck,” referring to Hamas. Abington, though, said the Palestinians face an increasingly uphill battle in Washington.
“Trying to lobby for the Palestinians in Washington is fundamentally a lost cause,” he said. “Congress doesn’t care, and the administration is just fueling the conflict.”
Abington said that when he was on the job, he faced not only American reluctance but also personal harassment, including bomb threats, endless lawsuits and continuous criticism. In one case, he found posters bearing his photograph, reading “Ed Abington — Wanted for Murder,” at his downtown Washington office.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.