“There could be no greater legacy for America than to help to bring into being a Palestinian state for a people who have suffered too long, who have been humiliated too long, who have not reached their potential for too long, and who have so much to give to the international community and to all of us.”
These words—among the strongest ever made by a senior American official about the importance to U.S. foreign policy of establishing a Palestinian state—were delivered in 2006 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the keynote speaker at the first annual Gala of the American Task Force on Palestine.
This was widely reported in Israel but almost totally ignored in the Arab world. An insightful Israeli noted that Palestinians should regard Rice’s speech as their own “Balfour Declaration,” unequivocally committing the United States to the creation of a Palestinian state.
On October 29, my colleagues and I at ATFP will be holding our 10th anniversary gala, “Generations of Commitment.” More than just a gala, it is the culmination of a long journey to create a defining public event for Palestine and Palestinians in Washington, and to bring the American policy establishment together annually under the banner of Palestine.
One of the most crucial aspects of ATFP’s mission has been to change the image of Palestine and Palestinians in Washington, moving beyond the traditional binary stereotypes of menacing terrorists or wretched refugees. There is an all-American story to be told about Palestinian immigrants to the United States, and a need to celebrate their contributions to our country and to the world. Every year several noteworthy Palestinian Americans are honored at the galas.
Beginning with the first ATFP Gala in 2006 has been a tradition of the highest-level keynote speakers including, during their terms of office, Secretaries of State Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
ATFP, led by its founding President Ziad Asali, has emphasized the American national interest in ending the occupation and creating, at long last, a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel.
Almost everyone active in ATFP had a significant history of prior Arab-American activism. We knew we were essentially starting from scratch, since the normative approach could not work because it didn’t answer the main questions or address the primary audience.
Traditional Arab-American approaches emphasized history, justice, international law and human rights. But they did not explain why the United States should, in its own interests, adopt ending the occupation as a core foreign policy goal. It was a conversation of outsiders that, even under the best of circumstances could not have, and did not really seek to, influence policy.
It proved astonishingly easy to fit the agenda of ending the occupation based on a two-state solution into the existing American foreign policy discourse. What ATFP demonstrated was that it was not—as many Arab-Americans may have expected—knocking on a locked door. Rather, ATFP found itself pushing on one that opened wide.
The primary reaction in Washington was not “what are you talking about” but “where have you been?”
ATFP’s galas are unique in bringing together a set of stakeholders that rarely appear side-by-side in public. Community members sit alongside senior government officials and diplomats. Pro-Israel advocates mingle with ease at an event celebrating Palestine. Prominent journalists engage with key decision-makers. Typically welcoming over 600 guests, the galas are gatherings of the who’s who in Washington in the Middle East policy conversation.
Even more remarkably, they typically applaud the same things at the same time. Everyone rises for the American and Palestinian national anthems. A Washington insider marveled privately that such an unprecedented mingling of different, and often estranged, constituencies could be assembled.
Any public event is, by definition, at least in part an exercise in political optics. ATFP’s galas are unique in Washington, for the optics they project, the stakeholders they bring together, dignitaries they honor and how they reframe the Palestinian-American community’s presence in their own capital.
The ATFP Gala is an evening of celebration of Palestinian Americans and Palestine, and a showcase for what can be accomplished within the system. “Yes, we can,” because in fact we have.
It is what ATFP does in between galas that makes such a huge range of stakeholders want to attend them. Its work is typically low-key, steady and cumulative, and designed to have a long-term impact.
What ATFP has done is what all other successful American constituencies have. It has emulated others in learning how Washington works and how to work in Washington. And in so doing it has shown how Palestinian Americans—like all others—can work to achieve their goals, empower themselves, and acquire influence.