Posted on April 20, 1992 in Washington Watch
This past week more than 2,000 California Democratic delegates met for their 1992 state party convention. Twenty Arab American delegates were present at the convention. They held their annual caucus meeting (the Arab American Caucus is now an officially recognized branch of the California Democratic party). They also hosted a gala Arab American reception which was attended by more than 500 delegates. Most importantly, the Arab American caucus also confronted pro-Israel Democrats at the convention in a platform debate on Israeli settlements and U.S. loan guarantees to Israel.
To strengthen their political position for the debate, the Arab American delegates founded a “Democrats for Middle East Peace ” coalition. The coalition included prominent progressive Jews, Hispanics, Asian and African Americans, and other Democratic party leaders and activists—all of whom opposed Israel’s settlements and U.S. loan guarantees to Israel.
During the convention, the Arab American-led coalition lost a round to the “Democrats for Israel” group, but the fight was so intense and well-fought that the Arab Americans and their coalition emerged stronger and better positioned for their next encounter.
The California Democratic Convention is just one of a number of major state conventions this year.
Presidential election years not only bring out candidates running for national office. They also involve grass roots activists in both the Democratic and Republican parties in a complex process of elections and issues debates as they work to shape the policy platforms of their respective parties.
In at least twelve states, this platform debate process is a real grass-roots experience involving thousands of activists. On election day in these states, voters not only select their choice for President, they also choose local delegates (usually one in each “precinct”, which is equal to a neighborhood) to represent their views at their state meeting or convention.
In 1988, for the first time, Arab Americans participated in this national process. More than 400 Arab Americans won positions as delegates to their state conventions. Fifty-five Arab Americans were also elected or appointed as delegates to national conventions. (The average number of Arab Americans elected to previous national conventions had been four.)
In ten states in 1988, the Arab American delegates built and worked with coalitions to pass resolutions in support of a number of Arab American concerns:
-Sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity for Lebanon,
-Support for the United Nations resolution to end the Iran-Iraq war,
-Ending negative stereotyping of ethnic groups, and
-Guaranteeing political rights for immigrants.
The coalitions and momentum created by these victories carried over to the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where Arab Americans succeeded in passing five planks (resolutions) into the national party platform. The only issue that did not pass was the resolution on Palestinian rights. The coalition supporting that cause was strong enough, however, to overcome protests from the pro-Israel forces and guarantee that the issue of Palestine would be debated in front of the entire convention. This marked the first time that either party had heard such a debate.
The Israeli press was shocked. “I’m scared,” one prominent Israeli supporter was quoted by the Jerusalem Post. “Nothing like this has happened before…. [We] went all out to keep this issue from being debated on the floor, and we were unable to prevent it.”
The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv went even further:
“Some see the events in Atlanta as a victory for Israel and its friends. This is certainly not the case…once an Arab lobby representative took the floor, even if for a mere 10 minutes, Israel lost the battle. Israel’s supporters shamefully flunked at the convention….”
AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, was stunned. In a memorandum to AIPAC’s members, the lobby’s Executive Director wrote:
”...we cannot ignore the warning signs it presents us. We are being directly challenged. For the first time, anti-Israel forces have organized grassroots support. In the last year, their activity has increased at a rate that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.”
The delegate selection process for 1992 is still in its early stages. The numbers of delegates that each candidate has won in the thirty-five states that have already held their elections is more than half-way completed—but the local elections to decide which individuals will fill these positions are just beginning in most of these states.
The number of Arab Americans involved even at this early stage in the process is impressive. Many analysts believed that the Arab American victories of 1988 were due solely to “the Jesse Jackson factor”. While Jackson did give Arab Americans their first national campaign experience, the Arab American victories in 1988 were the result of hard work and mastering the political process.
As a result of their growing political expertise, this year more than 250 Arab Americans have already won positions as delegates to state conventions and nineteen Arab Americans have secured posts to the Democratic and republican National Conventions—and these numbers will undoubtedly grow by the time the delegate selection process is completed.
It is as yet too early to predict the impact Arab Americans will have in the 1992 policy debate, but the California Democratic Convention provides some early insights into the shape of the Middle East policy debate this year and the forces that are affecting it.
While the Arab American delegates to the California convention lost their fight to pass a convention resolution against Israel’s settlements and Israel’s request for loan guarantees, this loss must be understood in context.
The section of the Democratic party platform which the Arab Americans sought to change read:
“The California Democratic Party (CDP) reaffirms our commitments to a secure and thriving Israel.
“The CDP applauds the historic peace process now underway and recognizes that this is only the beginning of a long, arduous process that offers a real opportunity for bilateral, face-to-face talks between Israel and all of her Arab neighbors and Palestinians, and an opportunity for peace and security for Israel and the realization of legitimate rights of the Palestinians.
“Furthermore, the CDP recognizes that only if this process of direct talks between Israel and her Arab neighbors and the Palestinians results in a real peace will stability throughout the region be achieved. A real peace is one based on: actual peace treaties, security and recognition for all, diplomatic and economic relations, the fostering of democracies and moderation in the region, trade, regional investments, cultural exchange, and tourism.”
To this, the Arab American-led “Democrats for Middle East Peace” attempted to add:
“For the negotiations to succeed, the U.S. must encourage Israeli and Palestinian participation by making it clear that the Israeli policy of settlement in the occupied territories will not be rewarded with U.S. loan guarantees.”
While Arab Americans got the debate that they wanted on settlements and loan guarantees, they realized and appreciated the significant advance that the initial platform represented over previous platforms. It is a modest statement of principle, to be sure, but it is tantamount to an endorsement of the Bush/Baker peace process without qualifications.
The platform does not mention, as it had in previous years, “Israel as a strategic ally” of the United States, or “Jerusalem as Israel’s capital”, or any other excessive language in praise of Israel. Nor does it include any of the usual Arab-bashing that has been found in past party platforms. The statement represents an attempt at a Democratic consensus on Middle East policy that is a response to two major factors:
l The first factor is the work done by Arab Americans in 1988 to win changes in the platform in ten states. As a result, Arab Americans showed the party leadership that the mass base of the party supported a balanced Middle East policy. This has in turn forced Israel’s supporters to drop their more strident language in order to appear more accommodating—at least on paper.
l The second factor is that Bush/Baker approach to the peace process and the President’s firm denial of Israel’s loan guarantee request have received firm public support. Thus, while pro-Israel supporters made an effort to defeat the Arab American-led amendment against loan guarantees, they simply did not dare to introduce and debate a resolution in favor of the Israeli request.
Another major difference observed at this year’s first major state convention was the overwhelmingly visible presence of and pressure tactics used by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. In some instances, Arab American delegates were forced out of their delegate positions. Efforts were made to deny Arab Americans positions on key committees where resolutions are discussed and, in some cases, microphones were shut off in the middle of Arab American delegates’ speeches.
When one Arab American Democratic party activist complained about this behavior to an AIPAC representative, he responded by saying, ” Get used to it—we own this party.”
Actually, the heavy-handed tactics used by AIPAC in California and other states are clearly working against them. AIPAC has shown itself to be anti-democratic, intolerant, and obsessed with winning at all costs. While they believe they won a victory in California, it is a hollow victory. Many non-Jewish and many Jewish delegates left the convention feeling disgusted with AIPAC, and an organized effort is now underway in California to show, in the words of one Arab American Democrat, “AIPAC does not own the Democratic party.”
An important side note to this discussion is that neither Arab Americans nor their allies considered California a loss—especially because that state was not one of the ten they won in 1988! the real tests will come in future state conventions.
The resolution and issue debate process is well underway in most of the states which were won in 1988. In Iowa, Washington State, Maine, and Michigan Arab American Democrats and Republicans have passed local county and district resolutions on Middle East peace which are working their way to the state conventions.
In Iowa, for example, Democrats have passed three separate planks. On Middle East peace: “Be it resolved that the Democratic party supports a Middle East Peace process based on a negotiated settlement which would satisfy the national aspirations of both Israel and Palestine. The negotiations should be based on the principle of “land for peace” as laid out in the 1978 Camp David Accord.”
On Lebanon, “Iowa Democrats support a U.S. policy toward Lebanon that insures the unity, independence, territorial integrity, and reconstruction of Lebanon and obtains the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, specifically the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 calling for Israeli withdrawal from the South of Lebanon.”
And on Arab-bashing, “Iowa Democrats strongly condemn discrimination against any ethnic group, the use of ethnic stereotypes, the resort to “bashing” of any ethnic or national group as part of the political discourse over social, economic, and political problems in the United States.”
Iowa’s Republicans have passed similar resolutions.
In several states and on the national level, Arab Americans have met with the parties’ leaderships in an effort to negotiate compromise resolutions for the party platforms in advance of the conventions. For Arab Americans, the resolution process is not an end in itself but an effort to build consensus, to advocate and to support the peace process. Arab American efforts thus far have displayed political maturity and an unprecedented level of access into the political mainstream.
In short, Arab Americans are fully engaged in the political process in this election year. They are confronting the pro-Israel lobby on the state and national levels. The ability of the pro-Israel lobby to shape the national debate and win has been tempered by both the popular support for the White House’s Middle East policy and by the success of Arab Americans to build a broad coalition of people who support a balanced approach to Middle East peace.
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