Palestinian-American: A new strategy is needed for Palestinian advocacy in U.S.
Sam Bahour, who voted for Obama, explains why he has no expectations for the president's visit and why the Palestinian strategy in the United States has it all wrong.
On Thursday morning, about an hour before U.S. President Barack Obama began his very short visit in Ramallah, scores of Palestinians took to the streets to protest the visit and what they see as the United States' unwavering support for Israeli policies.
The demonstration was initiated by the Palestinian Nationalist and Islamic Forces, a shorthand for the organizations in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (including Fatah) and outside it, which represents a wall-to-wall coalition of functionaries who hope to attract rank and file citizens as well.
This was a permitted demonstration - the Palestinian leadership wanted it to take place so Obama would understand that it's the public who is pressuring them not to return to sterile negotiations without so much as a halt in Israeli settlement construction. Among the demonstrators were some Palestinians who hold an American passport, as in similar demonstrations earlier this week, out of the several thousands of Palestinian Americans who currently live in the West Bank.
Sam Bahour, a business consultant, was born in the United States and came back to live in his father's home town, al Bireh, about 20 years ago. Without being identified with a specific political organization, he is outspoken and very involved in public life, both politically and economically. He said he has no expectations of the visit by the president he elected (for domestic American reasons, not Palestinian ones).
There is almost nobody who still thinks that the United States can be a fair mediator, concludes Bahour. In Bahour's opinion, the only group excited about the visit is the narrow Palestinian leadership (Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and about 10 of his associates).
"At best he'll prop up the PA for a couple more years by showing that they are state-like," Bahour said. "This is, I think, part of the U.S. agenda for meeting with the PA. I don't have much faith that it can result in anything other than giving the PA some credibility that a U.S. president has approached them and allowed them to sustain themselves longer, when all the facts on the ground and all the economic indicators show that the PA is basically in a collapse mode."
In his opinion, the PLO leadership and later the PA failed for decades to read the political map in the United States.
"The PA leadership views the U.S. presidents like they view presidents of the Arab world: that the president is everything. In the United States, the president is not everything, but rather one component of a very complicated political system. The PA leadership has never really invested proper thought in the United States to be able to understand the influence of that complicated system. The leadership thinks that all politics in the United States happens in Washington, whereas we know that Washington is reflecting the pressures that constituencies on the ground in various communities put on their representatives.
"The PLO has always appointed a weak representative in the United States because it thinks that for direct contact with the White House, it doesn't need any kind of on-the-ground apparatus or organization. Someone who is strong, [they think] he could influence a power base that will disrupt this connection between the White House and the Muqata [PA headquarters]. The reality is just the opposite. As we learn from AIPAC [America's pro-Israel lobby], to influence Washington we have to do hard work on the ground in all 50 states."
This approach is particularly necessary on the Palestinian issue, says Bahour, because instead of being a foreign policy issue, it is hijacked by Congress.
"Any administration, Republican or Democratic, any president, doesn't have the leverage or leeway that they should have on a foreign relations issue. This issue in the United States is a domestic issue. I think it only applies to us - any other foreign affairs issue is a foreign affairs issue, where the administration has its leeway. The arms industry is probably the body behind hijacking the Congress more than anybody else. Maybe equal to AIPAC. [We do not need to] compete with AIPAC , we should be able to enter the minorities community, the churches, the Arab-Americans, the education system. That is a powerful base to start to influence congressmen at the local level. The average American, if presented with the facts of this conflict, has no alternative but to be supportive of the Palestinians."