Posted on April 01, 1996 in Washington Watch

“It’s not every day that the State Department changes their agenda.” This was the comment of Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestine Legislative Council and representative to the Sharm el-Sheikh follow-up meeting Washington on March 28-29.

Erakat was referring to the fact that until two days before the meeting, State Department spokespeople insisted that the Washington meeting would focus exclusively on counter-terrorism, leaving other Palestinian concerns to be addressed at a later date.

Not so, said Arab and European delegates to the follow-up meeting, supporting the Palestinian position that the meeting designed to save the peace process and stop terror should focus on counter-terrorism and on the root causes of terrorism and on the effect that the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza is having on the ability of the Palestine National Authority to govern effectively and maintain the confidence of the Palestinian people.

The unified Arab and European stand was important, as was the unified stand of Arab Americans, who also pressed the White House and State Department to broaden the meeting’s agenda.

The Arab American effort came in the from of an Emergency Summit convened by the Arab American Institute in response to the crisis in the peace process. This summit, which was announced only a week before it took place, was a major success.

The emergency meeting brought 41 Arab American leaders from 11 states, representing 14 organizations, together in Washington, DC. They worked for a week developing resolutions and recommendations to present to the White House and State Department on how to move the peace process forward. During the week leading up to the meeting, the Arab American leaders met and discussed their concerns with Administration officials in order to lay the groundwork for the outcome of the Emergency Summit.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced his six point “emergency plan to improve the economic situation in Gaza and the West Bank” at the Thursday opening of the Sharm el-Sheikh follow-up meeting, the Arab American leadership were heartened. But they also resolved continue to push forward to translate the plan into action.

Mr. Erakat addressed the Arab American meeting, as did three Arab American members of Congress, Mr. David Satterfield (Director of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council), the Lebanese Ambassador to the U.S. and the Director of the PLO’s Washington office.

Following four hours of deliberation, the Arab American leadership reached a series of resolutions, which can be summarized as follows:

On Terrorism and Collective Punishment
The delegates to the summit stated their unequivocal opposition to terrorism in all its forms. Terrorism, whether committed by Israelis or Palestinians, is to be condemned and its perpetrators and organizers brought to justice. It is imperative that such anti-terror campaigns – whether implemented by Israel, the PNA or here in the United States – be respectful of internationally recognized norms of human rights and the rule of law.

Additionally, the Arab American leaders expressed their belief that:

· Israel’s use of collective punishment which violates norms of international human rights and law is counterproductive and threatens the peace process as much as terrorism;
· the PNA’s efforts to find political solutions to their relationship with non-violent opposition leadership should be supported; and
· there is an urgent need for job creation in the West Bank and Gaza to bring tangible benefits of peace to more Palestinians and dry up the support base of anti-peace extremists.

On the Peace Process and Support for the Palestine National Council
The Arab American leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Middle East peace process despite the difficulties and the tragedies of the past two and one-half years. They expressed their disappointment with the pace and one-sided nature of its implementation. While pressure is placed on Palestinians to implement the Oslo accords, they noted that Israel continues to undermine those accords through new land confiscations, continues building of settlements and security roads in the West Bank, and failing to implement agreements regarding prisoners, passage, and commerce. Nevertheless, the gathered Arab American leadership retained hope that this process, if fulfilled, will lead to a just and lasting negotiated settlement between Israelis, Palestinians, and the broader Arab world.

The delegates to the summit expressed their support for the newly elected President of the PNA, Yasir Arafat, and the Palestine Legislative Council, but were deeply concerned that recent Israeli measures threaten to undercut their legitimacy and credibility. Despite those burdens, they noted, President Arafat and the PNA have persevered in their commitment to peace. As the elected representatives of the Palestinian people, they deserve greater respect and support from the U.S. Administration and from Congress in their efforts to rebuild the Palestinian economy, infrastructure and civil society.

The gathered leadership stated that while understanding efforts by the Administration to restore Israeli confidence in their security and the peace process, the Arab American leaders expressed alarm that measures to similarly boost Palestinian confidence in the benefits of this process have not been a priority. They therefore called on the Administration to establish as a priority the commitment articulated by Secretary Christopher to the Sharm el-Sheikh Follow-On Meeting on March 28 to “an emergency plan designed to improve the economic situation in Gaza and the West Bank.” In this regard, they urged active and visible U.S. leadership in marshalling $100 million in emergency funds to provide immediate short-term public works employment to 100,000 Palestinians. They noted that funds are available from a variety of international sources, and job creation programs can be administered in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Administration or a number of respected U.S. and international non-governmental organizations.

At the same time, the Administration must press Israel to ease their blockade, and to allow access to the West Bank and Gaza through Jordan and Egypt.

On Lebanon
The Arab Americans expressed deep concern that tensions in the south of Lebanon once again threaten to create a crisis for the people and government of Lebanon.

Following the last major Israeli incursion into South Lebanon in 1993, a July 13 “understanding” was reached with U.S. mediation between the government of Israel and Lebanese resistance groups operating in the south of Lebanon that established important limits that both sides should continue to respect. While the Arab American delegates stated that they maintain that Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon is illegal and in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, they support the interim position of the Lebanese government which insists that the “understanding” be enforced and that civilians not be targeted, and that both Israeli incursions into or assaults on Lebanon and attacks into Israel be prohibited.

On American Muslim Organizations
The Arab American leaders expressed unified support for the leadership and work of mainstream American Muslim organizations which oppose terrorism and have supported efforts at realizing a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. The delegates to the summit affirmed that they will not allow the campaign against terrorism to become a bigoted witch hunt that threatens the civil and political rights of American Muslim groups and their leaders. Acknowledging the legitimate role of law enforcement agencies, the Arab Americans expressed concern with reports of FBI agents interviewing Arab Americans and American Muslims as to their religious and political beliefs. Such activity creates a chill in our communities and represents an infringement of constitutionally-protected rights.

On Relations with American Jewish Organizations
Finally, the Arab American summit called on President Clinton to reassert the leadership he demonstrated in 1993 when he urged Arab American and Jewish cooperation on the peace process, by convening as soon as possible a “Summit for Peace” with representatives of both communities to:

· find creative solutions to remove the impediments that have thus far blocked the benefits of peace from being enjoyed by both Israelis and Arabs alike; and
· transform the political discourse in Congress from one marred by antagonism to one based on the recognition that peace requires mutual reinforcement and mutual respect.

***

While some Arab American organizations did not attend, the enthusiastic response of the leadership that did participate represents a giant step forward for Arab American political empowerment. For the first time, Arab Americans mobilized quickly, lobbied effectively and helped to make a difference in policy.

Now the Arab American delegates face the challenge of translating their summit into a national mobilization of Arab Americans in support of the policy recommendations they adopted. At the end of the day-long meeting, practical steps were designed to use this new Arab American consensus to reach out to other ethnic, religious and political organizations in order to build a broad coalition in support of Arab American concerns – and then to take this effort to Congress.

Saeb Erakat was right: “It’s not every day that the State Department changes its agenda.” But that is not an accomplishment in and of itself. More work must be done. For there to be peace, there must be a constituency that supports peace. The Arab American Leadership Summit was but a first step in building a national support base for the kind of balanced process that can alone lead to a just and lasting peace.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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