On Wednesday, October 19, the American Task Force on Palestine will be hosting its Sixth Annual Gala in Washington DC. The Task Force, established in 2003, has been continuously expanding its presence in Washington over the years, with 100 people attending our first fundraiser in 2005 and 700 people attending our Fifth Annual Gala last year, addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Our gala has become an important fixture of the Washington political scene and a must-attend event for key players on Israel-Palestine policy. We are proud and humbled by the national and international stature that ATFP has achieved over the years. Yet the role and purpose of the Task Force is sometimes still misunderstood, so allow me to explain who we are, what we do and why.
ATFP's mission and strategic concept
Our work is grounded in principles and defined by pragmatism. From its outset, ATFP's mission -- to advocate that a negotiated end of conflict agreement allowing for two states, Israel and Palestine, to live side-by-side in peace and security is in the American national interest -- emphasized our identity as an American organization. We maintain that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is crucial for our country's interests, and over the years of ATFP's existence this has become a consensus view in Washington. ATFP, whose Board of Directors is made up entirely of Palestinian Americans, is an American organization advocating for a Palestinian state, but not a Palestinian organization.
The two-state solution is the official policy adopted by the PLO in 1988 and pursued, since the Oslo agreement, by the Palestinian Authority under President Yasser Arafat and then President Mahmoud Abbas. It also is the policy advocated by the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Prince, and now King, Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and adopted by the Beirut Arab League Summit of 2002, as well as the Quartet which represents the USA, European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel declared his government’s support for two states soon after he assumed office.
ATFP's decision to focus on mainstream advocacy based primarily within the Washington policy community was strategic, and designed to influence that policy by directly engaging those who shape it. The Task Force took an early decision not to be a grassroots membership organization because we knew we needed to chart our own course with rigorous independence. We understood that we were going to create a new model for advocacy for Palestinian independence in the American national interest. We never claimed to speak for any community, but only for ourselves and those who willingly affiliated with us based on support for our policies.
Another of our most crucial objectives was to help redefine the image of Palestinian Americans, Palestinians and Palestine in Washington and throughout the United States. At our annual galas, we honor four prominent community members for their achievements and contributions to our society, and emphasize the positive, uplifting story of the Palestinian-American experience. We are well aware of, and have ourselves experienced, the Palestinian tragedy of dispossession, exile and occupation. However, we also know that Palestinian Americans have thrived in and contributed greatly to this country, and we want to communicate that to our fellow Americans and our own community.
We also understand our mission to have a performative element, demonstrating to other Palestinian and Arab Americans the importance of shifting the focus to an emphasis on American identity and patriotism while advocating for a state of Palestine and accepting the state of Israel. Though there have been many pressures on us over the years to take our eyes off that ball, we decline to do so.
Our primary target audience is the policy-making and discourse-shaping establishment in our nation's capital. We are against the occupation, but not against Israel, and advocate policies that are in the American national interest. We support the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps, and with its capital in East Jerusalem. We support agreed upon solutions to the issue of refugees acceptable to both the Palestinians and Israelis. We have issued our vision of the character of a Palestinian state, which we recommend should be democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized and based on the rule of law. We recognize and believe that the United States is the indispensable broker for the negotiations that will be essential to achieving a peace based on the creation of an independent Palestine.
ATFP's guiding principles
From the outset we found ourselves pushing on open doors because there is a recognized need in Washington for serious, constructive Palestinian-American voices advocating peace. We have therefore been able to establish strong relations with both Republican and Democratic administrations, key members of Congress, and the most important policy think tanks and media organizations.
Our guiding principle has been to oppose the occupation while accepting the state of Israel with agreed upon borders, based on the principles laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 242 and subsequent resolutions accepted by the PLO, the Arab League and the entire international community. We have established contacts with American organizations across the political and ethnic spectrum without getting involved in their communal politics. And we have developed dialogue with American, Palestinian, Arab, European, Israeli and other governmental officials with un-wavering pursuit of a conflict-ending peace agreement consistent with our mission.
Our financial integrity has been scrupulously maintained, with full transparency and disclosure. We have posted on our website audited and signed financial statements for every year of our existence.
ATFP seeks to build a national coalition
Our main partners have been all those seeking a genuine two-state solution, including Americans, Palestinians, Israelis who are committed to moving beyond a binary, zero-sum mentality and embracing a win-win solution based on a genuine compromise. For years we have been trying to lay the groundwork for a national coalition for a two-state solution, and we continue to work towards that goal. ATFP believes it is necessary for all who understand that a two-state peace agreement is essential to the American, Israeli and Palestinian national interests to work together to achieve that single goal, regardless of any other differences. This can only be done on the basis of parity and mutual respect.
Our principal tools to advance our mission have been public and private advocacy within the policy community in Washington, in the media, and around the country, as well as outreach around the world, particularly in the Middle East. We hold and coordinate events with numerous organizations across the country while holding them on our own as well. And we work diligently on developing and maintaining our relationships with key officials and policymakers.
Challenges and criticisms facing ATFP
The Task Force has been confronted by a wide range of critics from many different political orientations. We have come and remain under continuous attack from certain right-wing Zionist groups that support the occupation. Naturally, we have been denounced by anti-Israel extremists who oppose any dealings with Israel or mainstream Jewish-American organizations. We also have been harassed by some left-wing ideologues, many of them neither Palestinians nor Arab-Americans, who out-bid us on support for Palestine and accuse us of “selling out” to the US government or the pro-Israel lobby. Respectful of all views, we expected many of these critiques, and we are not deterred by any of them.
Another expected challenge for us has been breaking through the orthodoxy of political correctness within the Palestinian and Arab American communities and their entrenched leaderships, many of whom cling to an anachronistic and dysfunctional zero-sum narrative of “us versus them.” This perspective does not recognize that in order to end the occupation, Israel must be the partner for peace. It also typically takes a confrontational approach to the US government and political system, thus rendering the community marginalized and diminishing prospects for the influencing of decision-making. By contrast, ATFP seeks to identify and partner with those in the United States, Palestine and Israel who understand that ending the conflict requires a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The Task Force recognizes and appreciates the open American political system that has made this country great by allowing all citizens to participate freely and fully. ATFP emphasizes working within the system, and with the political and policy establishment in our country, in order to impact policy and redress real, important grievances. The accomplishments and political empowerment of all communities and causes have been based on precisely this approach of engagement and full participation in our open American system.
ATFP has adopted a time-tested and proven strategy, but one at variance with the orthodoxy within its own base community. Not surprisingly, this new approach has contributed to limiting the resources and funding available to the organization. Given what we have achieved with the modest resources thus far available, it is obvious what could be accomplished with more support. Most criticisms leveled against us, from whatever quarter, reveal a lack of understanding that ATFP is not an ethnic or community group, it is a goal-oriented organization that is dedicated to a strategic purpose: the creation of a state of Palestine alongside Israel. Those who disagree with us are welcome to another course of advocacy in any way they wish. This, after all, is a free country and these issues can and should be approached from many different perspectives.
How ATFP promotes its mission
The state of Palestinian and Arab American community organizations limits their ability to marshal the two most important components of political influence in our country: votes and money. Yet ATFP has fashioned three important tools that are actually within our power, and is using them to the fullest extent, to advance our mission.
First, we have contributed serious, important ideas based on insights stemming from our unique position, connections and expertise. These substantive ideas have proven their value to policymakers, and have been taken seriously among the key leaderships. Some of these ideas challenge existing policies, while others support or enhance them. But all are pursuant to the realization of our mission.
Second, we have established our credibility by doing the right thing in the right way, and always saying the same thing consistently to all audiences, in English and in Arabic. We were fully aware from the outset the significant political and social costs we would incur, and have indeed incurred, for some of our principled positions. Such vital credibility cannot be won or sustained in any other manner. We have worked hard to ensure that no one can seriously dismiss us, even when they take issue with our opinions. Credibility requires courage, taking clear stances on controversial issues and making difficult choices that cannot be avoided. Our lack of any official status or funding from any government sources whatsoever has enhanced rather than inhibited our credibility. We have rigorously protected our independent decision-making of all forms of pressure, from all sources.
Third, the quality of our ideas and credibility has allowed us to develop exceptionally broad and high-level contacts and access. Important people among the key players talk to us seriously, both publicly and privately, because they know other important people talk to us as well. They listen to what we have to say, just as we listen to what they have to say. This places us in the unique and vital position of being able to understand the Palestinian leadership’s decision-making and to explain it to American officials and vice versa, and at the same time to be able to communicate seriously with Israeli leaders as well.
It is sometimes argued that we have attained access without influence, but it is impossible to have influence without access. We are well aware of the limitations we are still working to overcome, and are guided by what we can actually achieve given our resources and the political realities. The first step towards gaining influence is attaining access, and we have acquired a significantly greater measure of both than anything that has been yielded by more traditional Palestinian-American advocacy. Obviously there is a long way to go, but our experience tells us that we are without question on the right track. Our effectiveness would be significantly enhanced if and when a broad base of supporters throughout the nation advocates along the same lines in their local and regional political settings.
As a goal-oriented organization, in the long run ATFP will be judged on the basis of what it can achieve and the results it can help deliver. Our approach will remain suspect in the eyes of some until tangible evidence of its success becomes irrefutable. Nonetheless, we have already established an organization with national and international influence. This is our modest contribution to all those forces fighting for peace, dignity and a better future. We are guided by what we can actually achieve in the real world with the resources at our disposal. We stay focused on our mission, and are committed to the art of the possible. Given the mission of the Task Force of advocating the establishment of a state of Palestine, we focus on strengthening the American-Palestinian relationship, and bringing them closer together at every level. This is the raison d'être of ATFP.
Ziad J. Asali
American Task Force on Palestine, President
September 30, 2011