The Saudis Take a Stroll on J Street
There are some very close ties between Saudi Arabia, the Arab American Institute, and J Street.
December 23, 2009 - 12:00 am
Talk about a tough sale. Imagine being Saudi Arabia’s public relations firm in the United States in the months after the 9/11 attacks, which were perpetrated by 19 terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. Shilling for a tarnished Saudi Arabia was the daunting task that faced Qorvis, a Washington-based PR company. The $14 million contract surely compensated.
In their 2002 contract, Qorvis promised to “draft and/or distribute talking points, press releases, fact sheets, and op-ed pieces in order to promote the [Saudi] Kingdom, its commitment to the war against terrorism, peace in the Middle East, and other issues pertinent to the Kingdom.”
Soon thereafter, a new organization appeared on the American scene, the “Alliance of Peace and Justice in the Middle East.” In April 2002, the organization ran radio spots on dozens of stations across the U.S. extolling the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by then-Crown Prince Abdullah and attacking Israel’s settlements.
According to one ad: “The [Saudis’] fair plan [would] end the senseless violence in the Mideast.” The plan involved Israel’s “withdrawal from the Palestinian land it has unjustly occupied for years. … There will be no more midnight raids and random searches, no more violence.” “Start the peace — end the occupation” is the phrase that ends the ads. It is followed by the words “paid for by the Alliance of Peace and Justice.”
Who was behind the alliance? One American Jewish activist tracked them back to a Virginia address, which just happened to be the offices of Qorvis.
Eight months later, in documents submitted to the U.S. Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Office (FARA), Qorvis began to fess up. They listed receipt of $679,000 from the Alliance of Peace and Justice for “payment for radio, television, and print ads.”
In a tiny footnote, Qorvis added this classic piece of obfuscation:
Registrant [Qorvis] assisted in the preparation and placement of certain advertisements to promote the Saudi Middle East peace plan that were prepared by the Alliance for Peace and Justice, an American organization concerned about the Middle East peace process. The Alliance paid Qorvis for work on the advertisements. At the time of these payments, the Alliance was funded by a bridge loan from the Embassy of Saudi Arabia. The Alliance received its permanent funding from the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, through its Committee for the Development of International Trade and the Alliance repaid the loan to the Embassy. The Council, including the Committee, is based in Saudi Arabia, with its principal offices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The advertisements prepared by the Alliance for the Council were filed with the Department of Justice on April 29, 2002.
When he was confronted by reporters in 2002, Qorvis CEO Michael Petruzzello told them that the financial backers of the “alliance” included the Arab American Institute (AAI), the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.
In December 2004, the other shoe dropped when the FBI raided several Qorvis offices as part of FARA compliance investigations. A grand jury was convened, but details of their findings were never made public.
As of November 2009, no FARA registration was ever made by the Alliance of Peace and Justice despite Qorvis’ claim that Saudi institutions paid the alliance, and despite Qorvis’ portrayal of the alliance as a separate American organization. Nor are there FARA filings for one of the organizations named by Petruzzello, the Arab American Institute, despite their receipt of $300,000 from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in that very busy year of 2002.
The Arab American Institute was founded by Arab-American and Democratic Party activist James Zogby, an early supporter of Barack Obama. (Zogby was rewarded for his support in July when he was asked to deliver the keynote address at the Justice Department’s 45th anniversary commemoration of the Civil Rights Act.)
Another AAI leader is Wisconsin businessman Richard Abdoo, a member of the organization’s board of governors.
Little was heard of the Saudi peace plan after the Alliance of Peace episode. Until recently, that is.
Abdullah’s peace plan, also called the “Arab Peace Initiative” and the “Arab League Plan,” was presented on an “all or nothing basis ” in 2002. It insisted on the Arab interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which demands a return to the 1949 armistice lines, a position at odds with the American and British drafters’ intentions. The plan also demands a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue “in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.” That resolution is understood by the Arabs to include the Palestinian “right of return” to areas they fled between 1947 and 1949, areas and even major cities in today’s Israel. Israel rejects “the right of return” as a mortal threat to its existence.
Today, the Saudi plan is a major tenet in J Street’s platform.
J Street’s website position papers state, “U.S. leadership can be deployed … to normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world, utilizing the Arab Peace Initiative and helping to create institutional frameworks for regional cooperation.”
When asked about the plan in a Ha’aretz interview in June 2009, J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami responded, “Yes, we support the idea behind the Arab Peace Initiative — which is that resolution of the conflict needs to be regional and comprehensive.”
In a November CNN interview with Christine Amanpour, Ben-Ami referred to the Arab plan repeatedly, including: “The Arab League has put on the table not simply an Israeli-Palestinian deal, but an Israeli-Arab comprehensive peace with the entirety of the Arab world.”
Why does J Street push the Saudi initiative? Perhaps the answer lies in the new “alliance” that has been formed — the very close ties between Saudi Arabia, the Arab American Institute, and J Street.
In September 2009, J Street joined some 30 ethnic and religious groups to support Obama’s Middle East diplomatic efforts. One of the groups was the Arab American Institute, which posted on its Internet site the coalition’s statement. Included was this clause: “We support the idea of a comprehensive regional peace that builds on the Arab Peace Initiative.”
A member of J Street’s advisory board, Judith Barnett, worked on aspects of the Saudi account for Qorvis in 2004. She was also one of the first contributors to J Street’s PAC and was later joined in the PAC by Nancy Dutton, the Saudi Embassy’s Washington attorney; Lewis Elbinger, a U.S. State Department official who was based in Saudi Arabia; and Ray Close, the CIA’s station chief in Saudi Arabia for 22 years who later went to work for Saudi intelligence bosses. Close’s son Kenneth registered at the Justice Department as a foreign agent, working for Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the author of the Saudi peace plan.
Beyond sharing support for the Saudi plan, the J Street-AAI financial and ideological ties also appear to be very tight. Richard Abdoo is a member of J Street’s finance committee with its minimum contribution of $10,000 to J Street’s PAC. James Zogby recently wrote in the Bahrain Gulf Daily, “On October 25,  the Arab American Institute and J Street convened a joint meeting that brought leaders and activists from both communities together as an expression of our shared commitment to advance a just and comprehensive Middle East peace.”
J Street’s embrace of the Saudi initiative is not a surprise, considering the strong endorsement the plan received from George Soros, J Street’s purported godfather and sugar daddy.
“The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative,” Soros wrote in a 2007 manifesto, “[is] a settlement to be guaranteed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, based on the 1967 borders and full recognition of Israel. The offer was meant to be elaborated by Saudi King Abdullah at the Arab League meeting to be hosted by Saudi Arabia at the end of March. But no progress is possible as long as the Bush administration and the Ehud Olmert government persist in their current position of refusing to recognize a unity government that includes Hamas.”
Incredibly, the billionaire blames AIPAC for the initiative’s failure, a factor that may explain Soros’ burning desire to create a left-wing alternative to AIPAC. “Both for the sake of Israel and the United States, it is highly desirable that the Saudi peace initiative should succeed; but AIPAC stands in the way. It continues to oppose dealing with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.”
Despite its recent national conference, J Street still defies definition. Beyond Ben-Ami, its ubiquitous and loquacious director, the decision-makers and major funders of J Street remain anonymous. The Saudi-Arab-American Institute-J Street nexus begins to provide some definition to the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel” organization. But more disclosure is needed.