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. 

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