To Prevail or To Abdicate: Palestinian-Americans’ Strategic Role in the Struggle for Justice in PalestineWashington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1999, page 11.
By Issam M. Nashashibi
Issam Nashashibi is a Palestinian-American activist in California.
“[The] organizations and their respective leaders were emotionally as well as ideologically so absorbed in their internecine struggles, rivalries and efforts to achieve hegemony in the . . . community that the perception of the urgency of the [mission], was if not ignored, at least greatly diminished.”
According to The New York Times’ 21 March 1984, edition, the above sentence was deleted from the published copy of a report on why Jewish-American groups did not do all they could to save the Nazi holocaust victims. The deletion was requested by the sponsor who, however, approved the report’s conclusion that the fundamental reason for the organizations’ overall failure is that “they were disunited, financially limited and lacking political influence.”
Those were the late 1930s and early 40s. Today, most U.S. Jewish organizations have two overriding goals: to be the most effective lobby for a foreign country in the U.S. and to define the Middle East problem in the minds of the American public. These goals in turn implement the Zionist strategy of maintaining U.S. support for Israel.
Zionism is not invincible
The drive for a Jewish homeland has consistently relied on leveraging the might of the superpower of the day to implement the concept and then later to maintain Israel’s viability. In the first half of this century, Zionism leveraged the resources of Britain, the pre-eminent superpower of the period, to plan and implement the establishment of a Zionist homeland in Palestine. Following WWII, Zionism courted Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S. to maintain support for Israel. Since the 1960s, it has concentrated mainly on keeping and exploiting U.S. support.
Without it, Zionism cannot sustain Israel’s military strength and maintain its viability as a “Jewish” state in the face of local demographics.
A strategic role for Palestinian Americans
Therefore, attenuating Zionism’s ability to leverage the might of its superpower patron, the U.S., must be an important part of any strategy to achieve justice for the Palestinians. Such a scenario requires a capability to influence U.S. Middle East policy. Because of the democratic nature of the U.S. system and their numbers, Palestinian Americans backed by other Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, have a large potential of affecting their government’s policies. The success of Jewish Americans, who do not exceed 3% of the U.S. population, is a perfect example.
To shape U.S. policy, Arab Americans have concentrated on scholarly publications, academic and Washington-based presentations and a reactive Washington DC presence whose objective is to talk to sympathizers who are part of Congress or the Administration. This approach was molded by three major factors:
1) The need to counter the glamorous presentation of Israel's 1967 war victory.
2) The fact that the individuals leading Arab-American organizations were mostly academics and educators by training.
3) The Arabs’ political culture of taking a “top-only” approach by dealing with the political leadership and practically ignoring public opinion.
The Need for a Paradigm Shift
While this approach may have been justifiable in the late 60s, it is not viable today because it ignores the major U.S. political axiom defined by President Lincoln’s statement, “In this country, public opinion is everything.” Yet, despite its lack of success in countering the pro-Israeli lobby, the primary Palestinian-American approach remains unchanged.
An alternative approach is to duplicate the strategy adopted by Jewish-American organizations. This would involve following the “top-down” strategy of Washington-based lobbying adhered to by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This strategy has worked for Zionism but might not be as effective the Arab-American lobby, because the resulting competition would prompt AIPAC to increase its spending and thus demand even more of the Arab Americans’ scarce financial resources.
Looking at it from a purely economic perspective, AIPAC’s lobbying results in more than $3 billion in aid to Israel. Assuming that this is achieved with an annual AIPAC budget of some $15 million, the resulting return is more than $200 in aid to Israel for every $1 dollar AIPAC spends. That's a lucrative business proposition that no one would give up easily and would defend even if the annual expenses were multiplied many times over.
Another disadvantage of this strategy is that it ignores the most basic objective of institutionalizing the relationship with the U.S. public, while instead investing in individuals who may remain in Washington only a few years.
Therefore, Arab-American organizations should adopt a new paradigm with a “bottom-up” strategy that calls for approaching the U.S. political leadership through the other part of the electoral equation—votes. This calls for grassroots organization and mobilization as well as forging alliances with similarly minded organizations, such as religious, ethnic, peace and progressive groups.
Public Opinion's Role
What President Lincoln concluded about U.S. public opinion being everything holds true today. For example, President Bush’s appeal to the U.S. public stopped AIPAC in its tracks during its heavy-handed lobbying in 1991 for $10 billion in U. S. Loan guarantees to Israel.
On a more global scale, history provides examples of recent victories that could not have been won without struggle both inside and outside their countries. For example: The Algerians won French public opinion for their independence while losing militarily in Algeria.
Most recently, the African National Congress (ANC) won in the U.S. and internationally despite its weakness in South Africa.
A Grassroots Strategy
In the 1980s, the ANC realized that to achieve its goal of “one person, one vote”, it needed to delegitimize apartheid by aligning with progressive and principled forces around the world. The resulting anti-apartheid alliance is so cohesive it refused to dissolve after 1991.
The late South African leader, Joe Slovo, in a meeting with Professor Edward Said stated: “We organized in every major Western city. We initiated committees. We prodded the media. We held meetings and demonstrations, not once or twice, but thousands of times.”
Professor Said later quoted Mr. Slovo as saying that every small victory in London or Iowa City renewed the South African people’s determination not to give up the struggle.
Armed with that insight, Said’s article “Strategies of Hope” described how some Palestinians held a seminar to discuss adopting such a strategy. In the article he mentioned how a learned participant opined that “South Africa is different” and insisted on “talking behind closed doors to Oxford and Harvard intellectuals,” instead of “wasting our time trying to create a grassroots movement of support for Palestinian human rights.”
This “top only” approach has failed to produce an equitable U.S. policy. Palestinian-Americans’ pursuance of this strategy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and in light of the success of the ANC’s grassroots-oriented strategy is in effect an abdication of their responsibility towards their people and justice in the Middle East.
US Opinion Supports Palestinian Positions
According to a 26 April 1998, article in The New York Times, US public opinion, since 1978, has a core sympathy for the Palestinians that reached 20% in 1993, and remains consistent at about 11%. That is just under 30 million people.
Other surveys conducted by Zogby International, the organization that most accurately predicted the results of the last U.S. presidential elections, show similar results. The most recent such survey, which was conducted for the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine and the Council for the National Interest, indicated that more than 50% of the U.S. public approve of an independent Palestinian state.
The same survey showed that over 65% favor a shared Jerusalem. These are formidable numbers. They exist despite the continuing “dumbing down” of America.
In 1989, the late Professor Michael Emery found that only 2.6% of non-advertising space in the 10 leading U.S. newspapers was devoted to foreign news. Moreover, in the last two decades, TV, the primary source of news for most Americans, has drastically reduced its time devoted to hard news.
Enhancing these latent US public opinion trends and bringing them into the open as a potent force in such a media environment presents a challenge to Palestinian- and Arab-American organizations.
Challenge for Change
It is clear that today’s challenge lies in changing attitudes not only outside but also inside the Palestinian-American community. Despite Professor Said’s 1991 conclusion, that “our status had more weight as representative of a moral cause than as members of a diplomatic delegation,” the Palestinian- and Arab-American strategy has not changed much. Two noted exceptions are the ADC leadership’s recent intense efforts to grow the Arab grassroots groupings, build alliances and provide platforms for addressing America by non-Arab-Americans; as well as the Arab American Institute’s effort to register and mobilize voters.
Yet there is a lot more work to be done. South Africa’s apartheid is no different from Israeli apartheid. It exists and is documented by eminent Jewish Israelis. Apartheid is anathema to all decent Americans. U.S. public support for the Palestinians exists.
Implementing a 3E's Strategy
What can be done for the 2000 elections and beyond? Implement a “3 Es” strategy. Its components are:
EMPOWERING Palestinian- and Arab-Americans,
ENHANCING American grassroots support and
ENGENDERING a favorable change in U.S. policy.
It requires serious financial support and relentless hard work to register voters, train them to facilitate their involvement even at local levels, along with highlighting basic moral issues as Israeli apartheid, the Deir Yassin Massacre and Israeli plundering of Palestinian land.
While it may be true that the average American probably will not vote based on a candidate’s Middle East policy, elected officials listen to people who consistently volunteer and vote for their campaigns. They also heed petitions signed by voters in their constituencies. A petition calling for justice for the Palestinians and a shared Jerusalem has been completed by the indefatigable organization Search for Justice in Palestine/Israel.
Close your eyes; imagine Palestinian Americans spending 50% of the pro-Israeli lobbying budget to implement such a strategy. Smile at the anticipated success and get energized to help in every way you can.
AAI can be reached at 202.429.9210 or [email protected]
ADC can be reached 202.244.2990 or [email protected]
Deir Yassin Remembered can be reached at 315.781.3418 or by visiting www.deiryassin.org
Search for Justice in Palestine/Israel can be reached at 508.877.2611 or [email protected]