Posted on August 12, 1996 in Washington Watch

On August sixth I had the privilege to lead a delegation of Arab American leaders to a meeting with President Clinton and officials of the National Security Council (NSC) in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Our discussion with the President was preceded by a longer exchange between our delegation and Mr. Samuel Berger, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and Mr. Mark Parris, Special Assistant to the President and Director of the NSC’s office for Near East and South Asian Affairs. The President then joined the meeting for the next 30 minutes.

While the entire session was “off the record” and, therefore, precludes the use of direct quotes, at a press conference following the meeting attended by 21 of the Arab American leaders, we unanimously agreed that the President was open and sincere in his comments and we were at once impressed by the depth of his understanding of our concerns and pleased by his commitment to work with our community.

During the 90 minute meeting, we raised several issues, including:

· our concern for the future of the peace process in the wake of the election of Benjamin Netanyahu – especially emphasizing our concerns over the possibility of new settlement and road construction, Israeli policies in Jerusalem, and the deepening hardships endured by Palestinians as a result of the continuing economic blockade of the West Bank and Gaza.

· our deep and continuing hurt over the failure of the Administration to respond adequately to the suffering experienced by the people of Lebanon during the Israeli assault in April, and our concern that Israel was attempting to use Lebanon as a bargaining chip in the negotiating process.

· our concern with the delay in reaching an agreement to implement UN Security Council resolution 986 and the continuing hardship of the people of Iraq. We made clear that we did not want to see the regime of Saddam Hussein benefit from the situation, but we hoped that assistance could be forthcoming to the innocent people of that country.

· our concern that anti-terrorism legislation might be used to unfairly target law-abiding members of the Arab American and American Muslim communities.

· our concern with the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the Congress reflected in both the recently passed Welfare Reform legislation and currently debated Immigration reform bill. Both could have a negative impact by denying social service benefits to legal immigrants to the U.S.

Following a detailed and thoughtful discussion, we left the meeting assured that the Administration understood these concerns and confident that they were working to resolve them.

This meeting was part of a continuing dialogue that this Administration has had with Arab Americans. This dialogue has included two group meetings with the President, a number of private discussions that many of us have had with the President during the past several months, meetings with the Vice President, Cabinet members and the President’s National Security staff, and an exchange of letters between myself and the President.

While not at liberty to directly quote the comments made on August sixth by either President Clinton or Mr. Berger, I can share several observations about their responses to our concerns culled from our own continuing dialogue.

1) Palestinians and the Peace Process
The Administration remains committed to the establishment of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace. In no way has their policy changed as a result of the recent elections in Israel. In fact, they are working to press the Netanyahu government to move forward and to honor all the commitments that the Israeli government has made to the Palestinians in Oslo I and II.

They are following closely the internal discussions and maneuvering taking place within the new Israeli governing coalition. While wary of extremist elements that seek to set back the peace process, they also see some positive signs in recent weeks.

There is a sense that some of what the Netanyahu government is saying and doing is for domestic consumption in Israel. At the same time there are some positive statements that have been made with reference to honoring the Oslo agreements and easing the economic hardship of the Palestinians. And even though some negative statements have been made regarding Jerusalem and settlements, these have yet to be followed up by specific negative actions.

Israel has been told on a number of occasions, both publicly and privately, that the Clinton Administration views settlements as an obstacle to peace – an unhelpful impediment and possibly provocative.

With regard to Jerusalem, the Administration has repeated its position that no action should be taken that would be provocative or might disrupt the peace process.

Even though this year’s Democratic Party Platform repeats the position taken in 1992 that “Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel,” the White House has authorized its spokespeople to respond to questions regarding the platform by noting that while this may be the position taken by the party, the President’s position remains unchanged. That position is:

“Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive and volatile issues in the peace process. I remain convinced that it is unwise for the United States to take actions that could be interpreted as prejudicing matters, such as Jerusalem, which Israel and the Palestinians themselves have formally agreed to discuss only in the context of direct, permanent status negotiations.”

At the same time, the Administration continues to press for an end to the blockade of the Palestinian autonomous territories and is urging donor countries to be more forthcoming in providing needed economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

In a very telling comment made before a gathering of ethnic leaders who met at the White House last month, the President expressed his feeling about both the new paradigm established by the peace process and the need to provide greater help to the Arabs who have made peace. He said, ”...there’s a peace process going. But there are still desperate economic problems in Gaza and the West Bank. And as I’ve told everyone, when this peace process started three and a half years ago, the United States had an interest in the Middle East, when the Bush Administration started the Madrid talks. But we had an obligation to the security of Israel. Today the United States has an interest in peace in the Middle East, an obligation to the security of Israel, and an obligation to the peace-loving Arabs who have stuck their necks out and risked their lives to try to promote the peace.”

2) Lebanon and Syrian Tracks
The Administration has repeatedly made it clear that it is strongly committed to the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon. This is the first Administration in many years to publicly state its commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 425. The President did so two times in his public comments following his April meeting with President Hrawi.

The Administration says that a prosperous and independent Lebanon is necessary for the prosperity and stability of the entire region. At the same time, the Administration insists that there must be forward movement on both the Lebanese and Syrian tracks for the peace process to succeed.

The Administration made an effort since April to express its regrets for not having responded in a more timely and balanced manner to the suffering of the people in Lebanon during the Israeli attack.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the Administration had made a tactical decision regarding the Israeli elections and the future of the peace process. On a number of occasions since April when speaking with Arab Americans, the President has spoken of his shock over the loss of so many Lebanese lives. Those who participated in August 6 discussion with the President left the meeting convinced of the Administration’s sincerity in this matter.

3) UN Security Council Resolution 986
We were told that a decision with regard to implementing Resolution 986 was imminent, and on the next day (August 7) the U.S. did in fact announce that was satisfied with the monitoring provisions and would go forward with approval for the oil-for-food resolution.

4) Anti-terrorism
Our delegation thanked the President for cautioning media and law-enforcement against jumping to conclusions after the TWA flight 800 tragedy and the Atlanta bombing. He and others in the Administration have frequently reminded the nation of the unfair accusations made against Arabs and Muslims in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and the impact that this rush to judgment had on our community.

The regular access to the White House the Administration has continued to provide to Arab Americans and American Muslims has enhanced the stature of both communities and given them greater confidence to function in the U.S. political mainstream.

5) Immigration
The President has on a number of occasions spoken out against the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. He opposed California proposition 187. While he did agree to sign the Welfare Reform bill passed by the Congress, he has made clear his intention to have its anti-immigrant provisions overturned in the next Congress. The President also has expressed his intention to veto the Immigration bill that is currently being debated in Congress. While supporting efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigration, the Administration cannot accept legislation that punishes the children of illegal immigrants by denying them education or health care.

***

The August 6 meeting with the President was preceded by a two hour planning meeting that was attended by 22 of the 25 Arab American participants. At the meeting we developed our agenda of issues and forged a consensus position on how to frame our concerns. Given the diversity of the group, this was a significant development. The success of this effort gave our delegation a new sense of optimism about the future of our community and our ability to work together as a unified political force.

The 25 Arab American participants were selected by the White House Office of Public Liaison to reflect both geographic and political diversity. The Arab Americans came from 12 national organizations and 10 states. In an effort to expand the opportunity for more groups and individuals to meet the President, two-thirds of this group had not been present at earlier White House meetings.

This continuing dialogue with the President and his Administration marks a new stage in the growth of the Arab American community’s involvement in U.S. political life, one which the White House appreciates and recognizes. It is a development of which we are proud, and on which we are eager to build.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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