Gulf News (Special Report)
October 25, 2007 - 11:34am

The general feeling in Washington is that most Americans - there are over 300 million Americans - are not knowledgeable about world affairs, certainly the Middle East, and especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In small part, this explains the lopsided US policy towards the region and, in greater part, exposes the failure of Arab governments and to some extent the Arab-American community in meeting this challenge.

There are several smaller American groups and few individuals who are trying to even the score. On the academic level, there is the Middle East Studies Association, founded in 1966 and now based in Tucson, Arizona, which "fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples".

It has increased its membership from 50 founding members to more than 2,600 and now serves as an umbrella organisation for more than 60 institutional members and 35 affiliated organisations. But this is like riding a slow boat to China. Several universities have Middle East studies programmes which have gown popular in recent years.

But on the political level, the course is more difficult, especially that it lacks adequate financing and commitment, be it from Arab governments or few Arab-American organisations.

The latter group has over the past four decades, particularly after Israel's occupation in 1967 of the remainder of Palestine (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) and several territories in neighbouring states - Egypt, Jordan and Syria - carried a fair share of the heavy load, sometimes making inroads into the complex political system, which is heavily influenced by the pro-Israel lobby .

The Israel lobby, led by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other Washington think-tanks, like The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), has been a pace setter on how to influence US policies.

Vice President Dick Cheney attested to their influence in his remark last Sunday at WINEP's annual conference: "I'm proud to say your former deputy director, John Hannah, is now my Assistant for National Security Affairs. And you can't have him back yet," adding, he and his staff "are doing a tremendous job".

Other side

The other side of the coin had its rare moment of splendid attention despite the taboo of discrediting Israel and its ill-treatment of Palestinians.

The keynote speaker at the annual gala of the American Task Force on Palestine underlined his familial links to the Palestinian people and his deep appreciation of their problem. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nick Burns declared:

"I want you to know how much respect I have for the Palestinian-American community in America. My sister-in-law, Nayla Baho, is a Palestinian-American. Her story and that of her family is very representative of what all of your families have experienced.

"Her mother and father fled Jaffa in May, 1948, thinking they would return in a few days or weeks. But, instead, the cruel fate of history determined that they would be refugees for more than 40 years.

"First in Libya, then in Beirut, then in Athens and finally in America where they have found a home and where they are citizens. From my ties to Nayla's family, I have learned that Palestinians, like all people, yearn for security and stability and freedom. I have learned that they have an extraordinary devotion to their families, and education, and most especially, to peace."

Burns had received his first-hand experience with the Palestinian people some 20 years ago when as a young foreign service officer he began his work at the US Consulate General in Occupied Jerusalem. "I have also seen and lived the real beauty of the West Bank olive groves and vineyards and of the historic cities that dot the landscape ..."

It is indeed a very rare occasion that a senior US official would speak so openly about his close ties to the Palestinians, much to the pleasure of those at the gala. (I recall when I was working at a major American newspaper several years ago I inquired whether I can move to the Opinion Page section and was told it was impossible because of my - Palestinian - background. Similarly, a senior official of the administration of president George H.W. Bush has never publicised his Palestinian ancestry except after leaving office).

These "dare-devils" have certainly been encouraged by the daring of several other prominent Americans who have lately spoken boldly about the plight of the Palestinians without fear of intimidation from pro-Israel groups who often accuse Israel's critics of anti-Semitism.

Among those who challenged the taboo were president Jimmy Carter in his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt who co-authored The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.

Moreover, there has been other eye-opening books written by Palestinians and Israelis that have contributed to the anti-Israel brouhaha.

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh, Married to Another Man: Israel's Dilemma in Palestine by Ghada Karmi, and Lords of The Land: The War over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar.

"The time has finally come for Americans with Arab roots," Jack G. Shaheen, author of the praiseworthy book, Reel Bad Arabs, How Hollywood Vilifies People, "to rid themselves of post 9/11 paranoia (and) become bolder in criticising publicly Israel's continued occupation of Palestine".

Otherwise, he continued in an interview, "to remain silent benefits whom? If we don't speak out for peace and justice, why should we expect others to do so?"


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017