Posted on March 01, 1999 in Washington Watch

Absent an organized political intervention by an Arab American-led coalition in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election, there will almost certainly be no substantive discussion of U.S. Middle East policy.

The reason is not, as some might suggest, that the U.S. public has no interest in foreign affairs. And this silence is definitely not because U.S. Middle East policy is such a smashing success story. In fact, there has been a succession of largely unresolved crises issues in the Middle East that have consumed every U.S. administration and U.S. policy makers during the past 25 years.

During that period, the United States has sent more troops, sold more weapons, lost more lives, spent more money on foreign aid and had more vital national security interests at stake in the Middle East than in any other region of the world. And yet, despite this substantial investment, fundamental problems have not been solved and the Middle East remains a tinderbox ready to explode.

But even with all of these problems and dangers, U.S. Middle East policy will not be subjected to scrutiny nor will candidates for the presidency debate these issues, unless they are forced to do so by external pressure.

The reason for this is quite simple. There has been, up until now, an asymmetry of power in U.S. politics, so that for years pro-Israel political pressure has not only driven the policy debate but has dictated the parameters of allowable discussion.

Candidates for public office, therefore, have not evaluated Middle East policy in terms of success or failure, or protecting U.S. interests or promoting human rights. In U.S. politics, the Middle East has been a question of domestic politics. When weighing Middle East issues or policy options candidates and their advisors do not ask “will this work, or serve U.S. interests or make people’s lives better?”–rather they ask “will this hurt or help our campaign with money and votes?” or “will this provoke protest?”

In the end, if the policy options considered will make the pressure groups happy and be ignored by the press and larger public, then it can be considered a desirable action to take irrespective of its merit with regard to the region or U.S. interests.

The damage done to the region and to U.S. policy by this political behavior has gone well beyond the denial of Palestinian rights. Israel’s supporters have attempted to shape the entire Middle East debate–to force the United States view of broader Arab issues through an Israeli lens.

As a result a clear double standard has emerged in the way the United Sates has implemented its policy. Israel’s supporters in Congress will force issues to the forefront that even undercut an administration’s modest efforts to achieve some balance in their approach to the Arab world. Recently, Congress has even taken steps that have hurt the peace process. On other occasions they have taken punitive measures against a number of Arab and Islamic governments and even taken provocative jabs at the U.S.’s Arab allies in order to embarrass them. All the while Congress continues to provide Israel extraordinary amounts of aid and benefits while shielding it from scrutiny and criticism.

While the prospects for change appear to be hopeless when looked at from the perspective of politics in Washington, there are significant changes taking place in U.S. public opinion that can be mobilized in a national election. This could create a new dynamic that could help force a change in the Middle East debate.

If left alone, the situation will most certainly not change. Candidates will respond only to the pressure they feel and the public will not rise up spontaneously to demand a new direction in U.S. Middle East policy.

If left alone, any political discussion of the Middle East by candidates will only occur within the parameters allowed by pro-Israel forces. For example, conservative right-wingers and some “liberals” might seek to challenge the current Administration’s position on Middle East issues by chiding them for: not moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, not doing enough to remove Saddam, not doing enough to stop terrorism or being “too soft on Arafat.” In other words, what is allowable is to be more hard-line than the current U.S. policy. What is not allowable is to criticize current U.S. policy for already being too pro-Israel.
Even though public opinion polls are showing that most Americans have developed a more balanced view of Middle East issues than the current policy debate would reflect–the public does not challenge this nonsense, they tune it out.

The only way to move the debate forward is an intensive mobilization effort to galvanize public opinion on a few critical Middle East issues–where U.S. interests are directly at stake–to organize this opinion and to bring it into the electoral process to directly challenge the candidates and the press to be accountable for their policy decisions.

In 1988 we undertook such an effort. We organized Arab Americans and other allies to run as delegates to Democratic and Republican political party conventions across the United States. In ten states we had elected a sufficient number of delegates to pass resolutions at the conventions calling for “Palestinian Statehood”.

In addition, in Iowa, the home of the presidential year’s first contest, we organized demonstrations against presidential candidates who refused to condemn Israel’s brutal crackdown on the “Intifada”. After a few weeks, national news reporters who had witnessed our demonstrations began to ask the candidates to comment on our demands. Before long questions regarding our concerns were being asked of the candidates during their pre-election debates.

By the time we reached the National Democratic Convention, our effort, which had its home in Jesse Jackson’s Presidential Campaign, had amassed enough strength to pass a number of platform planks on Middle East issues and to hold the first ever national debate on Palestinian rights in the heart of the Democratic convention.

Such a debate is, I believe, desperately needed this year as well. The candidates and parties must be challenged, the public must be mobilized and the “deadly silence” that has stifled discussion of U.S. Middle East policy must be ended.

It can be done. But, I believe it will only be done if Arab Americans lead the way.

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