Palestine rep finds closed doors

Doors sometimes close when the ambassador for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) comes calling on Capitol Hill.

Maen Rashid Areikat, the PLO’s lone representative to the United States, says he fights an uphill battle to keep foreign aid flowing from the U.S. That means going toe to toe with one of the most effective lobbying forces in the nation’s capital: a collection of Jewish-American advocacy groups, led by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

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In an interview with The Hill, Areikat said he can’t always get an audience with lawmakers to discuss Palestinian issues. Some congressional offices won’t even let him through the door.

“This is really unfortunate. … You have to talk to a party that is very, very crucial,” Areikat said. “The Israelis are talking to us. Why wouldn’t these members of Congress talk to us?”

Lawmakers who have refused to meet with the ambassador include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), chairwoman of the House Appropriation State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, according to the PLO’s Washington office.

Ros-Lehtinen and Granger are the two most important House members for any foreign interest active in Washington, so their refusal to meet with Areikat is a significant obstacle.

Granger said she would take a meeting from the ambassador once direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel resume, according to a spokeswoman for the lawmaker.

A spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen did not return messages seeking comment.

The PLO ambassador said he is in Washington to talk with anyone who will listen about the Palestinian cause. Areikat said he has met with a number of Jewish-American groups, including AIPAC.

“I think they have influence,” Areikat said of AIPAC. “They are an effective lobbyist group. They know how to utilize their resources and they are supported by a community.”

But that “doesn’t mean that AIPAC always tells them the truth,” the ambassador argued. 

“Unfortunately, on many occasions, they do misinform them about the situation. That’s why it is important for them to hear from us, because they can balance and counter the arguments they hear from AIPAC,” Areikat said.

Josh Block, the former longtime spokesman for AIPAC, said the ambassador is wasting his breath, because PLO’s political positions are indefensible.

“It’s an organization that won’t be in the same room with the Israelis, and is also forming a unity government with Hamas, which is recognized as a terrorist group by the United States, Europe and others, and has killed countless Americans,” Block said.

“His job is to defend those positions, and that’s going to be a difficult thing to do in Washington,” Block said of Areikat.

Areikat said he was the first PLO official to visit AIPAC headquarters when he met with the group’s executive committee in December 2008. He has also spoken at a number of events held by J Street, which is typically seen as a liberal counterweight to AIPAC.

The steps toward opening a dialogue have won Areikat respect from other Washington advocates involved in the peace process.

“Ambassador Areikat is a thoughtful and engaged advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and excellent representative of President Mahmoud Abbas’s policies here in the United States,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, in a statement.

The PLO ambassador had his hands full this year when the Palestinians’ push for statehood at the United Nations triggered a backlash on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. government cut off funds to UNESCO for accepting Palestine as a member nation, a move Areikat said will hurt America’s national-security interests.

“I think you are shooting yourself in the foot,” Areikat said of the U.S. decision. 

Direct U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority is also in trouble. Close to $200 million in security funding for the group was released by Ros-Lehtinen last month, but the lawmaker is holding back funds for humanitarian aid, according to press reports.

Areikat said he doesn’t believe that most lawmakers know U.S. aid to the Palestinians is also beneficial to American companies.

“You are actually helping American contractors,” Areikat said. “More than three-quarters of it comes back to this country — to contractors, to administrators.”

Born in Jericho, Areikat, 51, has been closely involved in Middle East peace negotiations over the years.

He spent 11 years in Ramallah at the PLO’s negotiations division, most recently as its deputy head. Areikat has also served at the PLO headquarters in Jerusalem and was part of the Palestinians’ negotiating team during the Madrid peace talks.

Areikat is Western-educated, having earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and a M.B.A. from Western International University.

Earlier this year, recognizing the tension the push for statehood at the U.N. would bring, the Palestinians hired a number of public-relations firms in the U.S.

The PLO U.S. delegation signed a contract with Bell Pottinger USA to help with grassroots activism, social media and congressional affairs, among other issues. The Palestinian American Chamber of Commerce signed an agreement with Qorvis Communications to work with Elam Tam, a Palestinian advertising agency, to undertake a “branding campaign” for Palestine, according to Justice Department records.

“Everybody needs the help of professional PR firms,” Areikat said. “We thought during this period at the United Nations, it would be best to seek advice of professional firms. That’s exactly why we hired them.”

With his outreach to Congress and the rest of America, Areikat said Palestinians want a peaceful resolution with the Israelis.

“We strongly believe in dialogue. We want to talk to everyone,” Areikat said.