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Understanding US politics and perception is key to Palestinian statehood

Palestinians stage a protest against US decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in front of Beit Hanoun border gate in Gaza City, Gaza on 4 September, 2018 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinians stage a protest against US decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in front of Beit Hanoun border gate in Gaza City, Gaza on 4 September, 2018 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

No one believes that there will be a seismic shift in how American politicians or the voting public views Palestine, Israel or the Arab world as a result of next month’s US elections. Arabs vote with their emotion, not their money or their reason. They expect Americans to do the right thing but are always disappointed in how elected officials in Washington act. Worse still, there really isn’t much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans; one side smiles more but they both undermine Palestinian rights.

We can change that political anomaly, but it means that Arabs in America, and in the Middle East, need to change. We have to clear the slate and start over in how we approach the US political system; this includes embracing professional strategic communication techniques proven to have an impact on political change.

The first thing we need to do is throw out everything that we think we know about American politics. The battle for Palestinian rights isn’t about BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions); it’s about PDS — “Perception, Democracy, Strategy”.

There are four essential strategies through which Arab-Americans can influence their fellow US citizens to change their attitudes and support Palestinian rights. The first is through acceptance. Arab-Americans need to assimilate and become Americans. We need to transform ourselves into mirror images of the American people. We need to look, sound and act like them; to become “them”, and engage with the issues that most concern Americans. Palestine is not at the top of that list; it’s below taxes, crime, education, jobs and the economy.

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The second is through populist achievement. Arabs need to become role models in America winning at every possible forum, level and medium. We need to win marathons. We must become successful athletes. We need to build successful businesses. We need to engage in philanthropy to help the needy. Americans worship success. We need to make ourselves successful.

The third is through entertainment. We must produce films and win Academy Awards, not for documentaries about Palestinian suffering, but through compelling Hollywood films that appeal to Americans in which the Arab cause is a subtle positive aspect. We have to stop talking to ourselves. We must start speaking to the American people in the language that they best understand — perception. Real-life tragedy grabs America’s attention, but humour and compelling fiction wins their hearts. We need to produce great movies and TV sitcoms; and write books like the 1958 novel by Leon Uris, Exodus. That was pure fiction, based almost entirely upon lies, and yet it succeeded in winning over the hearts and minds of the American people, defining how they would go on to view Israel and Palestine for the following six decades.

The fourth and most important strategy is through politics. In America, “all politics is local.” That means power doesn’t start at the top of the political process with congressmen, senators or presidents. It starts at the bottom with everyday American voters. Win over 51 per cent of the voters and you control that congressman, that senator and that president.

It’s not that hard to win the hearts and minds of 51 per cent of the voters in any congressional or voting district. And the majority of a district’s voters do not need to be Arab at all.

Arab-Americans must understand that to help Palestine, we must first build a relationship with the American people. Let’s also be honest and acknowledge something that most Arabs don’t want to accept; Americans have more influence and power over the future of Palestine than Israel, Europe or even the Arab world. Lately, I am not even sure the Arab world really cares about Palestine. Did you notice how Arab leaders failed to respond to Donald Trump’s decision recognising occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? The silence and ongoing inaction is deafening.

US President Donald Trump delivers a speech during a UN General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York, US on 25 September 2018 [Atılgan Özdil/Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump delivers a speech during a UN General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York, US on 25 September 2018 [Atılgan Özdil/Anadolu Agency]

Arab-Americans need to engage actively in US politics. We need to connect with voters on the issues that are most important to voters. We need to establish a relationship with the American people, bond with their priorities and offer our support. And under the cover of this perception-building friendship, we will implant strategically and carefully the true knowledge about Palestine in their minds. In other words, if you want to help Palestine in America, you need to set Palestine aside, and connect more effectively with the interests and perceptions of Americans. We need to assimilate into their society.

Perception is not about what you say, but how you say it. We must become the voter that we are trying to win over. We have to look, sound and act like them. When the American voter looks at us, they need to see themselves in their political mirror.

It’s very easy to do. It just requires common sense, a communications strategy of effective messages and perceptions, and, most importantly, money. Last time I looked, the Arabs were among the wealthiest people in the world, so what’s stopping us?

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The easiest way to force a congressman or senator to change their views on Palestine is to spend money on a compelling direct-mail messaging campaign. The message has to sell every Arab as a “person of the people”. The message has to be compelling to the voters. Congressional districts are won and lost in these direct mail campaigns that fling finely honed messages at voters targeting the issues they care about.

I’ll give you a good example. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian woman who over the years has been rising carefully up the political ladder, is poised to become the next congressperson from the 13th Congressional District in Michigan, succeeding Congressman John Conyers.

Of 80 Arab Americans seeking public office in 20 states in the November 2018 elections, 33 of the candidates are from Michigan, which has the second largest Arab population next only to California. That has led many Arabs to believe that Tlaib won because of Michigan’s large Arab vote, but that’s not what happened.

There were 89,179 votes cast in the Democratic Primary election, in a district which has 705,000 people. Tlaib out-voted five other challengers, four Black and one White. She was the only Palestinian Arab in the race, and received just 27,803, or only 31 per cent, of the votes cast.

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Tlaib did not run on a platform demanding Palestinian rights, championing BDS, or denouncing Israel’s racist policies or violent atrocities. She won by connecting with voters. The district is 53.6 per cent African American, 21 per cent White, 12 per cent Arab and 7 per cent Hispanic. The Arab vote helped, but it wasn’t the Arab vote that carried the district for her.

None of this is new to Israel. The pro-Israel lobby has been investing heavily in strategic public relations and communications for decades.

Until Arab-Americans put their money where their emotions are, Israel will continue to “own” the vote in Congress. Truth, justice and facts have nothing to do with that reality.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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