Al Hayat Wednesday 13 November 2013

For the last half century, Arab politicians and intellectuals have often talked about the need to create an Arab lobby in the United States to advocate for Arab issues. Often, they attributed the weakness of the Arab diplomatic position to the absence of Arab advocacy groups that explain and clarify the Arabs’ legitimate concerns and interests in the West, particularly in the United States. Often, they attributed the strength of Israel and the unwavering support it enjoys in the US to the strength of the American pro-Israel lobby and its ability to serve the Jewish state.


There is no doubt that this is all true. It is only recently that the Arabs have realized the importance of advocacy organizations in the West, and the influence they have on politicians, particularly in the United States. There are large numbers of Arabs living in Western countries, but they lack organizational capacity. They have been unable to create pressure groups that can advocate for policies that would benefit their causes, or at least minimize the damage done to Arab interests. Instead, they remain marginal players despite the fact that they possess the requisite elements for political influence – namely votes and funds – that could potentially be utilized to further Arab causes.


The Arab publics have remained antagonistic and wary of the West. For their part, Arab leaders resorted to mixed messaging, or even double-speak, to justify dealing with the West to their angry publics. The Arabs continued to believe that the West’s positions can only be amended by force of arms, in spite of repeated, concrete proof to the contrary. Arab hawks have achieved nothing on the ground except recurring, constant defeats on all fronts, coupled with loud, screeching media statements and “million man marches” in city squares. In the meantime, Israel’s supporters worked quietly, and exploited the Arabs’ weak points and ignorance about Western politics and decision-making processes to their own advantage.


To make things even worse, Arab hardliners sought to silence all those who have chosen to follow the path of persuasion and calm work in accordance with the rules of the political game in the West. By doing so, the Arabs have squandered decades, along with tremendous amounts of energy, skills and funds in quixotic campaigns doomed to failure, self-defeat and backfiring. Meanwhile, many chose to remain silent for fear of being branded traitors or worse.


In 2003, after years of marginalization and suffering, a group of Arab Americans finally founded an organization called the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP). They aimed to improve the situation of Arab Americans and enable them to develop an effective approach to working for the benefit of Arab causes in the United States and elsewhere. The activities of this organization gradually increased, as they started holding large events attended by hundreds of American supporters of the Palestinian cause, including Cabinet secretaries and other high-level officials.


This month marks the 10th anniversary of this organization. Many see ATFP as blazing the trail for the creation of a broad, genuinely effective Arab lobby that could advocate successfully for Arab issues, particularly the Palestinian one, and gather supporters and partners.


The founder and President of ATFP, Dr. Ziad Asali, says that Arab communities in the United States have left themselves disempowered and vulnerable. This became apparent after the 9/11 events when antagonism against Arabs proliferated among many Americans due to the ethnicity of the attackers. To defend themselves, Arabs sought protection in generic American anti-discrimination and anti-racism laws.


Asali adds, “We have learned from other Americans how to work from within the US establishment to serve ourselves and our issues. Criticizing the American system and policies from the outside is futile. We are Americans with rights and obligations. When we were able to show our fellow Americans that, just like them, we are committed to the American national interest, they listened to us.”


More importantly, Asali points out that Arabs – unlike Jews – oppose the US because of its position regarding the Palestinian issue. This antagonism, he believes, has impeded their engagement in the American political process. They have not acted as an organized bloc with clear interests, nor have they even supported Arab candidates in American elections. Arabs, he adds, generally agree on the issue of Palestine, and this can be a platform to launch serious, effective and broader Arab-American efforts. However, Arab-Americans are “still emotional and antagonistic towards the US system. They still believe that it is inappropriate to engage seriously with it.” He urges Arabs to move beyond this mindset, which has been demonstrably proven ineffective and wrong, saying, “Is it reasonable to blame a patient for neglecting his health or being addicted to smoking? Or should we treat him so that he can be cured?”


Counter-intuitively, he believes that Jewish Americans are the Arab Americans’ best ally when it comes to the Palestinian issue: “65-70% of Jewish Americans believe in creating a Palestinian state, which is exactly what we believe in. Therefore, reaching out to Jews is very important. We are not against Israel, but we are certainly against the occupation. We believe in creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Even Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the leader of the Arab world, recognized this basic approach by endorsing UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the Rogers Plan. And so did Yasser Arafat.”


Asali believes that the creation of a Palestinian state would serve the American national interest. He points out that President George W. Bush was the first American president to recognize the need for a state of Palestine in 2004. The Middle East Quartet also endorsed this imperative, so that “the two-state solution has become an international demand.” He adds, “We believe in dialogue. We will engage anyone who agrees with our goals. Jewish Americans who believe in a two-state solution are our natural allies since, like us, they are Americans.”


The American Task Force on Palestine recently held a gala in Washington, DC at the end of October, on the occasion of the organization’s founding. Asali says that this Gala ( is an annual occasion to showcase the achievements of Arab Americans and to celebrate distinguished members of the community “so as to show the American people the true image of Arab Americans.”


This growing effort has attracted effective talent that is active in the United States. These include Palestinian affairs expert Ghaith Al-Omari, commentator Hussein Ibish, and the Iraqi communications specialist Adil Awadh. Previous ATFP Galas were attended and addressed by Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, among many others.


Arab Americans are estimated to number around 4 million, which can constitute an electoral block that can be effective if they vote in a coordinated manner, as Jewish Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans tend to do. It is worth recalling President Harry S. Truman’s reaction when asked by representatives of Arab countries why his Administration was ignoring Arab concerns. Truman is reputed to have observed, “There aren’t many Arabs voters in this country”.


Asali believes that things have not changed much. Yet he is optimistic about the future. He says, “Today, our organization enjoys wide influence and exceptional access to American officials. Despite our limited financial resources, our ideas and analysis find traction in Congress and with the Administration. As Arab Americans, we seek to advance our issues, and are fully aware that the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is in the interest of our country, the United States.”