Despite its claims to be “committed to strengthening Palestinian-American relations” as “an independent voice for Palestine,” the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) has begun accepting funding from one of the most aggressive funders of anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic initiatives in the United States. A recently released 2011 Internal Revenue Service Form 990 information return revealed that ATFP has accepted at least $10,000 from the Klarman Family Foundation.
The foundation’s principal, Seth Klarman, is one of the pro-Israel community’s most prolific financial angels and also one of its most ideologically hardline.
The donation from Klarman highlights the trajectory of an organization originally founded to advance the position of Palestinian statehood advocates in Washington, DC, but which has increasingly diverged from the Palestinian consensus. It also exposes an emerging strategy of pro-Israel donors like Klarman who are propping up an array of Muslim and Arab-American groups to drive a wedge into grassroots Palestine solidarity organizing.
Reached by phone, ATFP Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish declared that he had never heard of Klarman or the Klarman Family Foundation.
Despite ATFP claims to have never accepted donations from foreign governments, the group accepted $148,800 from the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in 2011. Ibish refused to discuss the issue of UAE funding on the record.
Battling academics, funding expulsions
Besides his support for ATFP, Klarman has been the principal funder for The Israel Project, the Israeli government linked propaganda organization led by former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block. The Israel Project promotes a maximalist regime of sanctions on Iran, opposing the recently inked interim US-Iranian nuclear accords, and supports the Israeli settlement enterprise. Klarman has heaped hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the American Jewish Committee, and The David Project, which was established to suppress Palestine solidarity organizing on campuses across the US, and has harassed faculty deemed ideologically inimical to Israel.
Through his financial support for the Friends of Ir David Inc., Klarman has become directly involved in the Israeli settlement enterprise, assisting the US-based tax exempt arm of the organization that is behind a wave of Palestinian expulsions in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
Other pro-Israel groups reaping the benefits of Klarman’s generosity include Birthright Israel, the AIPAC-founded Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the pro-war Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). FDD is also funded by Sheldon Adelson, the rightist pro-Israel casino baron who recently called for the US to drop a nuclear bomb on Iran.
The fairly recent establishment of the pro-Israel front group, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) was also made possibly by Klarman’s generosity. With $200,000 from Klarman, SPME has set up a special initiative to undermine and demonize BDS, the grassroots movement that relies on boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns to pressure Israel into respecting Palestinian rights.
Klarman became one of the world’s richest people through the Baupost Group, a Boston-based hedge fund he founded that is now worth upwards of $20 billion. With his philanthropic foundation, Klarman emerged in the past five years as one of the pro-Israel lobby’s most aggressive funders. In an editorial co-authored by David Project founder Charles Jacobs (Klarman has served as chairman of the group), Klarman claimed that Jews around the world were “under siege” by the “Palestinianism” promoted by “a vicious anti-Israel movement.”
“Set to defend against thugs yelling ‘kike,’” Jacobs and Klarman wrote, “we are attacked instead by college professors – today a far more insidious enemy – who berate us for supporting ‘immorality.’”
The wedge strategy
In contrast to wealthy pro-Israel contemporaries like Nina Rosenwald and Haim Saban, Klarman has not limited his donations to explicitly pro-Israel groups. Instead, he has also contributed to organizations active in the Muslim and Palestinian-American world which claim to represent the interests of their communities.
Klarman’s support for the American Islamic Congress (AIC) offers a perfect window into his apparent strategy. As I documented for The Electronic Intifada, the AIC claims to promote civil and human rights on behalf of Muslims, however, the organization relies almost entirely on funding from Klarman and those who share its ideological bent.
As a result, it has attempted to drive a wedge through mainstream Muslim-American organizing, refusing engagement with established Muslim civil rights groups while forbidding members of its student arm, Project Nur, from discussing Palestine-related issues on campus.
Similarly, Klarman has heaped funding on the American Islamic Forum of Zuhdi Jasser, an Arizona-based physician and practicing Muslim who served as the key protagonist of the anti-Muslim propaganda film, The Third Jihad. Jasser was a star witness in Rep. Peter King’s widely panned congressional hearings on Muslim-American radicalization, and has praised the NYPD’s rogue program of Muslim surveillance.
Clearly, Klarman has calculated his support for Muslim and Arab-oriented front groups that advance pro-Israel interests while undermining the objectives of mainstream Muslim and Arab-American organizations. And his backing of ATFP appears to be the latest phase of the strategy.
Embracing the pro-Israel lobby, shedding board members
ATFP grew out of the now-defunct American Committee for Jerusalem, of which Columbia University Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi was a president. ATFP’s original Vice President was Khalidi, who appears in an archived 2004 webpage of the organization seated at a board meeting with figures including the Palestinian-American lawyer as self-described “high profile Republican Party activist” George Salem.
Today, ATPF is headed by the Palestinian-American physician Ziad Asali. The group’s stated mission is to promote in Washington DC the US-led peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Over the years, while the peace process floundered and the BDS movement gained momentum, ATFP began to drift well outside the Palestinian consensus.
As the group drifted into the hands of the Israel lobby under Asali’s direction, respected figures like Khalidi began resigning in droves. ATFP’s board of directors currently contains 13 names, none of them well known, and 27 fewer than in 2009.
Among those to have resigned from ATFP’s board is Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian journalist who became outraged by Asali’s opposition to the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations. Kuttab denounced the “unhealthy attitude of [Asali] who has chosen to ignore earlier decision [sic] of his own board and published two opinion pieces unfavorable to the UN [statehood] approach.” (The infamous party crasher, Tareq Salahi, also disappeared from ATFP’s board of directors, though not on his own volition.)
Another factor driving the backlash against ATFP in Palestinian circles was the May, 2012 photograph depicting Asali attending a celebration at the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC of Israel’s “Independence Day” — the holiday that coincides with Palestinian observances of the Nakba.
In the photo, an apparently jubilant Asali embraced Israel’s then-ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, a neoconservative ideologue who has vigorously defended Israel’s settlement enterprise. The New York-born Oren, who has renounced his US citizenship, was a paratrooper in the Israeli army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and Israeli army spokesman during the 2006 invasion of that country and the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead assault on the Gaza Strip, which left over 1400 residents of the besieged coastal territory dead.
The photo of Oren and the smiling Asali was distributed widely across the Palestinian diaspora, uniting an array of Palestinians of divergent political persuasions in outrage and indignation.
When Palestinian youth activists protested Asali’s appearance, organizing a petition to condemn his conduct, ATFP Senior Fellow Hussein Ibish responded with a spirited defense of his boss. “This is the only approach that anyone based in the United States who seriously wants to achieve anything practical for peace, or to improve the lives of Palestinians, can actually take,” Ibish wrote of Asali’s visit to the Israeli gala.
By this point, however, ATFP had even managed to alienate the Washington DC Mission of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). When Asali criticized as “potentially dangerous” the PA’s plans to bring its bid for statehood to a vote at the United Nations, echoing the American and Israeli position, the PLO announced in October 2011 that it was cutting all ties with ATFP.
ATFP’s Ghaith Al-Omari has been a close associate of David Makovsky, the former Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) scholar who was just appointed to join the State Department team running the US-led “peace process,” further stacking it with pro-Israel ideologues. In recent years, Al-Omari has toured the US media circuit and campuses alongside Makovsky, often at events sponsored by pro-Israel outfits. Al-Omari has drummed up optimism in the two-state solution while making the case for salvaging Salam Fayyad’s abandoned campaign to build cohesive state institutions under Israeli military occupation.
Meanwhile, Makovsky has devised a blueprint for “land swaps” that will allow Israel to incorporate the majority of its settler population into its future borders while potentially transferring Palestinian citizens living in the so-called “Arab Triangle” into the hands of an autocratic Palestinian government.
With hope for a two-state solution fading into oblivion, ATFP has stepped up attacks on Palestinian advocates of a single, democratic state with the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Ibish has served as the organization’s main attack dog, slamming BDS advocates for engaging in “hyperbolic discourse about the badness of Zionism.”
While Ibish and Asali rail against their critics — especially those who seek to obstruct the agenda advanced by big pro-Israel donors like Klarman — their agenda has dovetailed with the regional ambitions of their most generous funder.
Lobbying for the UAE?
In 2011, the ATFP accepted $148,800 in donations from the government of the United Arab Emirates, a repressive monarchy that forbids an independent press and has banned workers from unionizing. In March 2011, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in dispatching security forces to help Bahrain violently crush a non-violent democratic uprising.
More recently, in August of this year, the government of the UAE proclaimed its “understanding of the sovereign measures taken by the Egyptian government” a day after Egyptian security forces massacred some 1000 supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who had been ousted in a military coup on July 3. When Washington threatened a rollback of aid to Egypt, the UAE intervened with a pledge of $4.9 billion to the embattled military coup regime.
Ibish’s writing on Egypt has tracked closely with the foreign policy of the UAE. In January 2013, while Morsi was still in power, Ibish claimed that the Brotherhood was actively engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of the UAE. “It makes sense that the Brotherhood would try to…gain direct control of the UAE as a springboard to further expansions…” he wrote. Ibish based his theory on the UAE security services’ prosecution of a small group of Egyptian expatriates for “subversion.”
A day after the Egyptian military ousted Morsi, Ibish took to The Daily Beast to describe the coup as reflective of the “breadth and depth of Egyptian consensus,” while painting the overthrow as a repudiation of authoritarianism. He went on to warn that the threat of violence lay among the supporters of the Brotherhood, not from the military regime that would go on to massacre hundreds and jail and torture many more.
In August, after the second major massacre of non-violent Morsi supporters by the military coup regime, Ibish argued vehemently in the UAE-based paper, The National, against reductions in US aid to Egypt, claiming any punitive measures would “reinforc[e] the notion that the US does not stand by its friends.” Ibish warned that the Egyptian regime might respond with diplomatic retaliation, compelling the US to redeploy aircraft carrier groups in the region — a tragic blow to American empire.
In recent weeks, Ibish has echoed staunch opposition by the UAE and the Saudi-controlled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to US rapprochement with Iran. This month, he complained that the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a deal with the newly elected government in Iran were “a little too far, too fast, but they were induced by the Iranian enthusiasm.” (Following the completion of the US-Iran deal in Geneva, the UAE has muted its opposition)
A document on ATFP’s website titled The American Task Force on Palestine: Setting The Record Straight,” states “ATFP is an American institution that is funded by its Board of Directors and its supporters. It has never received any financial backing from any government at any time.”
This is at best out of date, and at worst, outright deception.