Posted on August 25, 1997 in Washington Watch

In early September, the national leadership of Arab Americans will meet in a summit in Washington to address critical issues facing U.S.-Arab relations and the Arab American community.

Heading the agenda will be the crisis in the Middle East peace process and the upcoming visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the region. Deeply concerned by the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the freeze in negotiations on the Syrian track, and the continuing danger of escalation in the conflict on the Lebanon-Israel front – the Arab American leaders will meet to analyze the roots of these crisis and make specific policy recommendations for U.S. initiatives to restore confidence to the deeply troubled search for a comprehensive peace. In addition to meeting among themselves, the Arab Americans will meet with high-level White House and State Department officials, members of the U.S. Congress, and Arab Ambassadors to Washington.

The summit is timed right before the Secretary of State leaves on her initial visit to the Middle East and just as the U.S. Congress reconvenes to complete its legislative work for 1997. As such, the meeting provides an excellent opportunity for Arab Americans to present ideas and develop strategies to impact both the Administration and Congress.

Among the issues the Arab Americans must stress with the Secretary of State are the need for the U.S. government to press the Israelis to stop settlement construction and to take immediate steps to free the Palestinian economy from the stranglehold resulting from the Israeli imposed closure and from Israeli protectionist policies.

If the Israeli-Palestinian final status talks are to succeed, the Arab Americans must urge the U.S. to play a stronger role in balancing the asymmetry between the Israeli and Palestinian sides. In preparation for peace talks the U.S. must take concrete steps to improve U.S.-Palestinian bi-lateral ties including preparing the way for U.S. recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood as the logical and necessary outcome to the peace process.

On the other tracks to the peace process, Arab Americans must urge the Secretary of State to include Syria and Lebanon on the itinerary of her upcoming visit to the region. Such visits would give impetus to restarting talks on these two fronts. Arab Americans should also seek a more aggressive U.S. role in stopping a further deterioration in the conflict resulting from Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. The U.S. should press all parties to adhere to the 1996 accord that protects civilians from being targeted in cross-border attacks.

At the September meeting, it will be important for Arab American leaders to confront the negative role played by the U.S. Congress. Recent legislative actions passed in Congress threaten to explode the peace process and endanger the already fragile U.S. standing in the Middle East. In addition to discussing these issues with congressional representatives, the Arab American leaders must also formulate a strategy to take their concerns with congressional behavior directly to U.S. voters in the 1998 legislative elections. Until such an electoral strategy is developed and implemented, Congress will remain a negative factor in U.S.-Arab relations.

In speaking to both the Executive and Legislative branches it will be important for Arab Americans to stress how damaging recent U.S. actions have been to the perception of the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is important for Arab Americans, as Americans, to address this fundamental concern since the failure to recognize and remedy this situation can result in further damage to the U.S.-Arab relationship.

Finally, when they meet in their summit, Arab American leaders will address a number of critical concerns affecting the civil rights of Arab and Muslim Americans. Specifically, the group will address the discriminatory treatment meted out to Arab and Muslim Americans at airports resulting from the recently introduced passenger “profiling” used to screen out potential terrorists. Arab Americans have already begun to launch an effective campaign to address this issue in the press. Through coalition-building with other affected communities and in meetings with responsible agencies of the U.S. government to address this issue. But there is a need to take this effort further by developing a comprehensive nation-wide strategy that will challenge and put an end to discriminatory profiling.

Another domestic civil rights issues of grave concern to Arab Americans is the increase in the number of deportation cases that are based on the use of “secret evidence.” This practice which is allowed under the new “Anti-terrorism Law of 1996” permits the government to seek the deportation of individuals by presenting secret evidence directly to a judge without allowing the accused individual knowledge of the content or even source of the evidence. There are, at present, five such cases involving twelve individuals – all but two are Arabs. Since this practice is in violation of the U.S. Constitution, it is being challenged in the courts and Arab Americans are resolved to be in the forefront of combating these violations of fundamental rights.

These are the basic issues that should be raised by the Arab American leaders when they convene in September. This meeting will build on the past three successful Arab American summits. In those earlier meetings, Arab Americans from sixteen states representing over twenty-five national and local organizations gathered in Washington to develop consensus positions and meet with White House and State Department officials informing them of Arab American concerns.

This summit, however, should take this process one step further by working to develop a national strategy that will focus energy and resources on the 1998 elections.

Arab Americans realize that they are uniquely positioned to challenge the lack of balance in the U.S. role in the Middle East. To do so Arab Americans must organize and take their issue concerns directly to the electorate and confront policy makers who are steering the U.S. in a negative direction. In many ways, the future of the U.S. in the Middle East and the peace and stability of the region will depend in part on Arab American’s playing their role in challenging the U.S. policy drift.

Arab Americans also realize that given the rightward drift of U.S. domestic policy, that they have been cast in the critical role of defending the U.S. constitution and protecting civil liberties not only for themselves but for all vulnerable communities in the U.S. As the group currently most affected by recent anti-terror initiatives, Arab Americans have a special responsibility to challenge aspects of those initiatives that violate long-standing Constitutional rights.

Given the timing and critical nature of the issues that the summit will address, it is imperative that the Arab Americans will at least make some progress in their effort.

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