Courting Controversy

Obama meets with anti-Israel Arab groups ahead of Israel trip

March 13, 2013

President Barack Obama met with several controversial anti-Israel Arab groups ahead of his visit to the Jewish state on March 20.

Obama held an "intimate" gathering Monday with Arab American leaders and others to solicit advice and ask questions in preparation for his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories next week.

Included in the meeting was Haris Tarin, D.C. director of the controversial Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a Muslim-American group that has falsely accused Israel of harvesting Palestinian organs and has asked for Hamas and Hezbollah to be removed from the list of United States-designated terror groups.

MPAC’s founder, Salam al-Marayati, has come under fierce criticism for suggesting that Israel should have been added to the "suspect list" for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Also in attendance was the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a group that has called Israel an "apartheid state" and once presented an award to the author of an essay titled, "Zionism is a Form of Racism."

The Arab groups offered Obama specific policy recommendations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Haris Tarin, the director of MPAC’s Washington, D.C., office, attended the intimate meeting with the president, as he prepares his agenda for this visit to Palestine, Jordan and Israel," MPAC said in a statement.

Tarin and others pushed Obama to engage the Palestinians, many of whom have been holding violent protests in the lead up to the president’s visit, according to MPAC.

"The group discussed with the president and his senior advisers how his trip can be a catalyst for restarting the dialogue that will lead to the implementation of a comprehensive peace plan in the coming months," according to MPAC’s statement. "Ideas were also presented on how to engage the Palestinian people, especially the burgeoning youth population."

"Tarin and others shared with the president some of the important work being done by the Palestinian people in achieving their aspirations for an independent and viable Palestinian state," the statement continued.

The inclusion of these controversial groups in the meeting drew criticism from congressional sources and Jewish observers who questioned why Obama would meet with a group that has been cited as explicitly anti-Israel.

"It is truly disturbing," said one congressional aide upon reviewing the list of those groups invited to brief Obama.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) cited MPAC in late 2009 after it promoted a false article claiming that Israel harvested Palestinian organs. The reports that MPAC prominently promoted were quickly rebuked and debunked as anti-Semitic by the ADL.

MPAC did not respond to a request for comment about whether it still endorses the article’s claims.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has also taken controversial anti-Israel positions.

ADC officials have accused Israel of "high-tech ethnic cleansing" and have complained that the "American taxpayer is footing the bill for Israel’s criminal activities."

The ADL has criticized American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for sponsoring anti-Israel rallies in Chicago, California, and Washington D.C., where a speaker is reported to have declared, "from this podium I salute Hezbollah."

The ADC did not respond to a request for comment.

The Arab American Institute (AAI), another participant in the meeting with Obama, has defended the use of the controversial term "Israel Firster," a term with origins in the white supremacist movement that suggests Jewish Americans are more loyal to Israel than America.

One Jewish American official apprised of the meetings expressed outrage.

"It is deeply troubling that the president would meet with let alone take advice from representatives of groups that support terrorist entities like Hamas and Hezbollah," the official said.

"Not only can any engagement of these terrorist groups be deeply counterproductive but their advocacy comes from a dark place. This is an organization that has accused Israeli Jews of harvesting Palestinian organs and being behind 9/11. MPAC says they advised the president on how to approach the Middle East. It's hard to imagine that could have been a productive conversation."

AAI spokesperson Omar Tewfik defended his organization's posting of the controversial articles.

"While we have not, nor would we use the term in official statements, we don't really have an institutional position on the term 'Israel firster' as that is not our focus," Tewfik said in an email. "We don't use it because it is a politically charged term that can become a distraction from the substance of the discussion, and we’d much rather focus on the actual issues that stand in the way of achieving peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Having said that, the articles you link to provide an interesting and important take on the subject."