The Cable

Inside the tiny Washington group that is 'mainstreaming Palestine'

Tonight, when Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad comes to Washington to speak at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), he will be endorsing an organization that is punching well above its weight in the U.S. policy debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

ATFP, a non-profit, moderate pro-Palestinian organization that has been in existence since 2003, has only five permanent staff members in its downtown D.C. office, but has managed to vault itself to the fore of the Washington foreign policy discussion over the Middle East peace process. "They've been critical in getting sustained and high levels of support from both Republican and Democratic administrations," an administration official told The Cable. "They have pretty high access, they can pass messages, they can work quietly with the Hill, they're not media attention seekers, they are trusted and they try to work behind the scenes."

ATFP's willingness to play the Washington game, on Washington's terms, has earned it both praise and scorn, but there is no doubt that it has given the organization a prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian debate that other pro-Palestinian groups have failed to achieve over the years.

The group is led by president and founder Dr. Ziad J. Asali, Ghaith Al-Omari, a former foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish. The trio has managed to attract high-level administration favor (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton keynoted their gala last year) and praise from the pro-Israel community. The downside of their strategy, however, has been a notable absence of grassroots Palestinian support and a recent backlash from parts of the Palestinian establishment, including a break in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington.

"We have chosen to work within the establishment," Omari said in an interview with The Cable. "Basically we believe the two-state solution is in the U.S. national interest. When we came up with this mission nine years ago it was groundbreaking. Now it is policy."

Omari noted that ATFP has framed its policies in terms of the U.S. national interest and its willingness to engage with parts of the Washington establishment that other pro-Palestinian groups have neglected.

"What we have discovered, much to our surprise, is that we were knocking on open doors," Omari said. He coined the strategy as one of "mainstreaming Palestine."

Some media reports have compared the group to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) because of ATFP's lobbying tenacity on Capitol Hill and its interwoven relationships with administration officials and Washington interest groups on all sides of the political divide. But Omari rejects that comparison.

"We are very different from AIPAC. We're not lobbyists, we're a non-profit organization," he said.  "I wish we had the Palestinian-American community as such an organized political presence."

ATFP's policy positions often deviate from the orthodoxy within the Palestinian community. The group's board narrowly voted to stay neutral on the issue of Abbas's bid to seek member state status for Palestine at the United Nations (a bid Fayyad was rumored to oppose). It also doesn't currently support the idea of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Omari said.

But can ATFP help defend against congressional cuts in U.S. funding for Palestinian institutions? That's the main mission of the group right now, he said.

 "There are tons of pro-Israel organizations in Washington that engage in the debate; in the pro-Palestinian community I could argue we are the only one," he said. "There is a hunger in this town for a voice that understands the Palestinians and can speak about their interests in a way that takes into account the way that Washington operates."

ATFP's clash with the Palestinian establishment has come into public view in recent weeks. Board member Daoud Kuttab broke ties with the group after it refused to endorse Abbas's U.N. strategy.

"The paternalistic attitude that Americans including American Palestinians know what is best for Palestinians and their leadership is an arrogant attitude that I can't agree to be part of," he wrote. "Whenever a lobbying organization reaches the position that it has to worry about its own existence and how the local powers consider it, that is the day that such an organization has lost its mission statement."

Then, last week, Politico reported that the PLO mission in Washington led by Maen Rashid Areikat had sent a letter to ATFP announcing that the mission was severing all ties to the group.

In an interview, Ibish confirmed the existence of the letter but said it didn't make sense to him because ATFP never had formal ties to the PLO mission in the first place.

"Why the PLO sent us this cryptic letter and gives no context whatsoever is really something that I can't explain," Ibish said.

Like Omari, Ibish rejected the comparison to AIPAC. "It's in a sense flattering. I think if we had the kind of resources they do, we'd probably look more like WINEP [Washington Institute for Near East Policy] than AIPAC."

Ibish said that the majority of ATFP's funding comes from Arab sources, but he acknowledged that the organization has Jewish donors as well, who are welcome to give as long as they support ATFP's goal of a two-state solution.

Josh Block, former spokesman for AIPAC, said that ATFP is respected in Washington policy-making circles, including the pro-Israel community, "because they are seen as serious players with ideas and access -- on the Hill, with the White House, and in the region."

"One of the things that distinguishes them from the other actors in the Arab pro-Palestinian camp is their willingness to challenge corruption, condemn terrorism without equivocation and meet with other stakeholders without precondition," he said. "Credibility in Washington is hard to come by, and Ziad Asali has certainly earned it."

Even Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who would have attended tonight's gala if not for the fact that he was observing the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret, had kind words for the group.

"We interact very frequently and on a friendly basis with the ATFP," he said. "We view them as partners and as friends."

And if you are at the gala tonight, stop by and say hello to your humble Cable guy. I'm usually seated somewhere near the back of the room. 

The Cable

Romney: Let’s let the Chinese feed the world’s hungry

All the GOP presidential candidates agree on one thing: The United States should cut foreign assistance and international humanitarian assistance programs. Their only differences are over how much.

"The American people are suffering in our country right now. Why do we continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?" asked a woman in the audience of Tuesday's GOP primary debate in Las Vegas.

Rick Perry started off the responses by calling for "a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations." The crowd cheered and applauded.

Calling the Palestinian drive to seek member status at the United Nations in September a travesty, Perry said that was reason enough to stop contributing. "Why are we funding that organization?" he asked.

Mitt Romney said that defense-related portions of the foreign aid budget should be transferred to the Defense Department and humanitarian aid responsibilities should be ceded to the Chinese government.

"I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give it to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are -- and think of that borrowed money," he said to applause from the crowd.

If either of the leading candidates were somewhat measured, Ron Paul was not. He said that foreign aid "should be the easiest thing to cut" because it's not explicitly authorized in the Constitution. "To me, foreign aid is taking money from poor people in this country and giving it to rich people in poor countries, and it becomes weapons of war, essentially, no matter how well motivated it is," he said.

Paul also said we should cut all foreign aid to Israel. Michele Bachmann disagreed, taking the opportunity to make the case that President Barack Obama is the first president to put "daylight" between the United States and Israel.

"That's heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region," she said, reprising her criticism of the entire Arab Spring.

The candidates also weighed in on defense spending. Bachmann was asked if defense spending should be on the table for cuts, and wavered somewhat, opening the door to cuts while saying that $500 billion in defense budget cuts that would be triggered if the congressional supercommittee can't come to a deal to find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts was too much.

Newt Gingrich, calling himself a "cheap hawk," said that the supercommittee was not qualified to make such decisions and said the defense budget should be driven by strategy and threats, not arbitrary numbers.

"The idea that you'll have a bunch [of] historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country -- in both parties," he said.

For FP Passport's compilation of the debate's foreign policy highlights, click here.

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