Mideast meets Midwest 

Why the PLO is now courting the American Heartland

Appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News several weeks ago, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was asked by combative host Bill O’Reilly why a simple solution to the Middle East conflict can’t be reached where each side gives something up and reaches a compromise.

“This is the Mideast,” Barak responded. “Not the Midwest.”

But in this era of globalization, how much distance is there really between the world’s tensest hot spot and America’s heartland? Consider, for instance, that in 2000, Montana exported nearly $1.4 billion worth of goods to Israel, making it the Treasure State’s 18th largest trading partner.

An Israeli official has already been through Missoula in the last several months, along with American and Arab representatives who spoke on the current conflict. Last week the quartet was completed as the World Affairs Council of Montana brought to town Michael Tarazi, legal and communications adviser with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

“The bottom line is, I’m trying to convince people here in Montana that the Middle East is not so far away as they think,” says Amb. Mark Johnson, executive director of the World Affairs Council of Montana and a faculty member at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center.

Speaking to reporters before his speech on the UM campus, Tarazi addressed the question of what the PLO has to gain by being heard in Missoula.

“Historically speaking, there hasn’t really been a Palestinian attempt to address Middle America,” Tarazi said. “That’s been one of our greatest weaknesses, that we haven’t understood the information flow, the public relations aspect of reaching out to not only the American public but world public opinion in general.”

By contrast, he said, “the Israelis have long understood the importance of public relations, especially in the United States.”

A Palestinian-American who grew up in Colorado and was educated at Harvard, Tarazi says he is using his unique position as an American citizen and a high-level PLO adviser to mount a new campaign of educating Americans about the Palestinian cause.

In his speech at UM to a packed crowd of more than 400 people, Tarazi gave his account of the Middle East conflict, from the breakdown of peace talks at Camp David in 2000 to the present. Tarazi sought to dispel the version of events popular among pro-Israeli and some moderate American commentators: that Barak went out on a limb at Camp David to offer a generous two-state peace plan to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat. Arafat rejected the proposal and, seeing his influence wane among younger and more radical Palestinians, set in motion the violence that erupted in September 2001, which has continued to escalate to the present day.

That take on the last year and a half, said Tarazi, is nothing more than a “mythology.”

Barak’s offer at Camp David would have preserved the majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and given Israel control over key access routes that in turn carved up the would-be Palestinian state into numerous non-contiguous territories, Tarazi said. The Palestinian state would have had no control over its borders and would have been constricted by Israeli checkpoints, he said.

“No viability and no true independence, this was the ‘generous offer’ we walked away from at Camp David,” Tarazi said.

As far as the implication that Arafat “pushed a button” and sparked the recent violence, Tarazi said the issue was far more complex. Anger grew amongst Palestinians during the 1990s as Israeli settlements proliferated, military checkpoints strangled their economy, and people lost their freedom of movement, he said. It seemed to many Palestinians that the Israelis were not serious about upholding their end of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and when Ariel Sharon, who even then was a controversial, hawkish former general, made an armed pilgrimage to a disputed holy site in September 2001, the situation reached a boiling point.

“There’s a direct link between the Israeli lack of security and the Palestinian lack of freedom,” Tarazi said.

Throughout his speech, Tarazi sprinkled in references and phrases that seemed aimed at his western audience. He compared Israel’s carving up of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to how the United States confined Native Americans to reservations. When talking about Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, Tarazi noted that they are unlike the settlers in the old American West who generally carry a positive connotation. He also made constant references to “Palestinian Christians and Muslims.”

While a Palestinian appeal to the American heartland is relatively new, the Israelis have long had a complicated relationship with rural America. Although it is far from their base of urban Jewish supporters, middle America has provided Israel with some strange bedfellows in the form of evangelical Christians concerned with preserving their access to the Holy Land, as well as right-wing hawks concerned with American military strategy and security in the region.

According to Amir Seguev, a spokesman for the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, which represents most of the northwest, including Montana, the Israelis’ appeal to Americans is the same in any region.

“The Palestinians have no problem to come up with pictures of humanitarian suffering, and a picture speaks better than thousands of words,” Seguev says. “We try to explain the whole concept and the big picture.”

For example, says Seguev, TV news footage of Israeli tanks in the streets of Ramallah tends to look like overkill, but the context is that the army is there to hunt down terrorists who kill civilians.

There may be plenty of different motives, but anything that brings these prominent figures to Montana is positive, says Mark Johnson of the World Affairs Council. As the state has become more connected with international news sources, people here have become more interested in hearing what prominent figures have to say.

“We’ve had big crowds whenever we’ve had a Middle East program, so I think people are interested and want to know more,” Johnson says.

Tarazi’s speech ended with a spirited and lengthy question-and-answer session. At one point he talked about being in Ramallah when the Israeli Defense Force entered in March.

“I was escorted out of my home by Israeli soldiers at 2:30 in the morning when they took over my building and turned it into an army outpost,” Tarazi said. “There’s really nothing in the American experience that prepares people for that kind of event and I never thought I’d be living it.”

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