Congratulations to the Centre for Political Development Studies (CPDS) in Gaza for arranging another very informative round table discussion, this time with retired US diplomat Norman Olsen. (April 30, 2013)
Mr. Olsen has 26 years experience in the US Foreign Service, most of it in the Middle East. He has lived in Tel Aviv and Gaza, sat at the negotiating tables, met all of the movers and shakers, and now he’s back in Gaza to help a good friend in his last days of life, dying of cancer.
The topic: How can Palestinians get their voice and message out to the American public to provide a counter-balance to the Israeli narrative that dominates the US media?
Mr. Olsen is not shy about sharing his opinions. In this 2011 Christian Science article, he noted that the GOP candidates were trying to bind President Obama’s hands on foreign policy in Israel. To which country do their loyalties lie? (In response to a question, Mr. Olsen stated he is an Independent.)
He provided a very good description of how the American political system operates. Whatever the President may want to do vis-a-vis foreign policy in the Middle East, he must always play off his agenda with Congress. They tell him, “If you want health care, you have to back off on Palestine.”
Each member of Congress is elected from a small district and is accountable only to those voters in that small district. If Palestinians in Gaza voted for representatives in districts, such as the Remal District, only the voters in the Remal District would vote for the representative from Remal. And so the people who live in the Remal District have influence over the decisions of their representative. That is how it works in the U.S., Olsen noted.
In the U.S. Congress, the Israeli lobby is very powerful and there is nothing hidden or secretive about their lobbying activities. Members of AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee) talk to members of Congress to convince them to support Israel. They only have to convince a few Congressmen, not all of them, because the uninformed members of Congress will just go along and support their colleagues. And so it is important that Palestinians talk to members of Congress, Mr. Olsen advised, in order to share the other side of the story that most do not hear.
He mentioned a book that documents all of the agreements made by the West regarding Palestine (1948-1982) which then the West broke. “The PLO & Palestine” by Abdallah Frangi. This is one I must pick up.
Mr. Olsen used a good analogy that I might use when I return to the U.S. and talk with Americans about Palestine.
Imagine people moving to New Mexico (my home state) from other parts of the world, and taking part of New Mexico for themselves. I suspect they would choose the northern half of New Mexico because of the water resources. These new people proclaim a new Hindu state (for the sake of argument) and tell the rest of us “You can stay and live here as second class citizens.” That is what has happened in Palestine and Americans don’t understand it.
My own observation: If Americans don’t understand the occupation, then they can’t possibly understand resistance.
There was robust discussion among the participants at this Roundtable. One young man said Palestine is suffering under a form of feudalism. Another commented that “our problem is access and organization.” How can the voices of Palestine influence members of Congress in the USA when Palestinians aren’t organized and even talking with Palestinians living in the diaspora?
One young man asked Olsen what practical steps they could take now to influence public opinion in the West. Olsen recommended reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and stop firing the rockets into Israel.
The second recommendation stirred some feathers of western activists in the room who asked “why does everyone point to Palestine to stop the violence when it is Israel that breaks the truce first, when it is Israel that has superior weaponry and uses it indiscriminately?”
Olsen said he was asked for practical advice and was giving practical advice. Israel’s communication and messaging skills are superior to Palestine’s skills and they know how to spin it when rockets land in southern Israel.
Personally, I was listening and hearing very good advice. I fear some other activists were not listening well. But after this Roundtable discussion I headed over to another meeting where a group of Palestinians sat down to a virtual dinner (breakfast) with Native Americans in Oakland, California. In that venue, everyone was listening intently and I was struck by the importance of listening as a skill that people everywhere need to fine tune.
Thank you Mr. Olsen for sharing your years of experience in the Middle East. And thank you to Yousef Al-Jamal and CPDS for organizing this Round table discussion.