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You Can’t Have It Both Ways

Thursday September 25, 2014

Countdown Vol. 12, No. 29

Arab Americans Celebrate National Voter Registration Day

The Arab American Institute joined thousands of other groups in registering voters across the country for National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday. Arab Americans on campuses in DC, Texas, Michigan and Ohio hosted registration drives to make sure students are prepared to vote this November! With high concentrations of Arab Americans living in some of the largest and most politically contested states, our community remains a key demographic group going into the 2014 and 2016 elections. We know we can make a difference. This November, 471 members of Congress are on the ballot and 36 states are electing governors, making National Voter Registration Day as important as ever. It’s not too late to get registered! Use our Yalla Vote registration widget, purchase a Yalla Vote t-shirt, and learn more about the elections happening in your state at www.yallavote.com. Arab Americans remain an important voter bloc and are one of the most active and politically engaged ethnic constituencies in the country. Let’s keep it that way!

What Does a Future Without Holder Hold?

Some big breaking news: our nation’s first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, is stepping down and will leave his position after six years serving the president. Holder is one of the longest serving members of the Obama cabinet and the fourth longest tenured attorney general in history. Amid increasing civil rights and civil liberties controversies, as well as the Department of Justice’s investigation on law enforcement practices in Ferguson, the way forward after Holder is unclear. Our community has been focused on the lack of attention given to revising the 2003 Department of Justice Guidance on profiling. Apparently, the guidelines will be released soon, and will “make clear sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion are not legitimate bases for law enforcement suspicion but controversial mapping of certain communities — including Muslim-American ones — would still be allowed for national security investigations.” These guidelines are unwarranted and troubling. While we wait to hear what a future without Holder holds, we can only hope it will bring more attention on the unjust practices and policies against members of our community. Holder’s legacy on sentencing guidelines and protecting voting rights is profound. We hope this progress will translate to much-needed changes on profiling guidance.

Dust Settles as Syria Strikes Begin

President Obama arrived in New York this week with the intention of selling his plan on combating violent extremism in the Middle East, dedicating the bulk of his UNGA speech to the threat from groups like ISIS and chairing a session on foreign fighters where a resolution was adopted by the UN Security Council to coalesce support for the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq and Syria. The unanimous resolution commits nations to combat violent extremism and find ways to prevent equipping or financing terrorist groups. Yet as the strikes began in Syria this week and Congress approved short-term funding for arming rebel groups in Syria, questions and reservations have come to light. The New York Times editorial board declared “Wrong Turn on Syria” this week, saying, “There isn’t a full picture — because Mr. Obama has not provided one — of how this bombing campaign will degrade the extremist groups without unleashing unforeseen consequences in a violent and volatile region.” Pressure is also mounting for Congress to vote on authorizing the military action already taking place in Syria. Although a coalition including major Arab countries is a welcome start, the notable exception of key players like Turkey and Egypt is worrisome. Despite the high public support for military action against ISIS, it looks like a reality check is taking place as the dust settles from the first strikes.

Downgrading the Peace Process

If there was one statement in President Obama’s UNGA speech that raised our eyebrows, it was his claim that “the situation in Iraq and Syria and Libya should cure anybody of the illusion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the main source of problems in the region. For far too long, that's been used as an excuse to distract people from problems at home.” It sounds nice, but it doesn’t bode well as we try to understand Obama’s broader Middle East strategy. No one is under the illusion that all problems in the region will be solved if an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is reached, but it is undoubtedly true that progress on solving the dispute would increase support for and trust in the United States. This so-called “linkage theory” of the Middle East has been around for a while, and was even touted by Obama during the 2008 campaign – talk about throwback Thursday. Downgrading the Israeli-Palestinian peace process using this rhetorical excuse might be politically advantageous given the lack of progress on negotiations, but it will only compound the crises and regional tensions in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. There’s no question that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a divisive and galvanizing regional issue. So, forget about the “network of death” comparisons to President Bush’s “axis of evil”. This statement and its implications should be what we focus on.

Abbas Asks You to Rethink Palestine

Ahead of the UNGA, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave a seminal speech in English at the Cooper Union. In remarks geared toward an American audience, Abbas evoked U.S. historical struggles including abolitionism and women’s suffrage, noting that “Palestinians today have far fewer rights than African Americans had in the 1950’s,” and said that by adopting U.N. conventions, Palestine would be “a model of women’s rights in the Arab world.” Speaking at the Great Hall where eight American presidents have spoken before, Abbas’ remarks were warmly received and extremely important. He called on the United States to be a “real friend” to Israel, saying, “Just as real friends do not let friends drive drunk, so too a real friend of Israel would not let them engage in the widespread killing of women and children, including bombing United Nations schools and hospitals, such as we just saw in Gaza.” This week, Abbas will seek a UN resolution to set a timetable to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine and will request membership in international institutions and agencies, including the International Criminal Court, if the resolution does not materialize. Abbas will address the UNGA tomorrow just as news emerges of a new agreement between Hamas and Fatah that will allow the Palestinian Authority to take control of the Gaza Strip and includes Hamas' support for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Senate Has its Cake and Eats it too on #NoWaiver4Israel

In a late night vote last week the Senate very quietly passed the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 (S.2673). Introduced last year by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and passed by unanimous consent, the bill establishes Israel as a “major strategic partner,” qualifying Israel for a long list of new perks including excess military weaponry, economic bonuses, commerce permissions, and security assurances. Tucked away in Section 9, the controversy surrounding Israel’s acceptance into the Visa Waiver Program was ended in one measly, unsatisfying sentence. The bill provides that Israel will not be included in the program until it “satisfies, and as long as Israel continues to satisfy, the requirements for inclusion in such program”. Well, there it is folks, #NoWaiver4Israel. But you won’t catch us celebrating. Even though we can breathe a sigh of exhausted relief that our government decided against making it officially permissible for Israel to discriminate against U.S. citizens, as the original language of the bill sought to do, the revisions do not address the real issue at stake with Israel’s bid to join the program. Instead, Boxer’s final language seems to neither admit Israel into the program nor include language that addresses Israel’s long documented discrimination against Arab Americans traveling to Israel. You better believe we will continue to document cases of discrimination at Israel’s borders and advocate for a government initiative to end measures that reward Israel for bad behavior.

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