Posted on September 04, 2000 in Washington Watch

After a difficult decade of political exclusion, in 1992, Arab Americans once again faced the prospect of being excluded from a Democratic presidential campaign. As I have noted before, it was Senator Joseph Lieberman who fought for our inclusion. The full story should be told.

Despite the gains Arab Americans had made throughout the 1980s as part of the Democratic Party coalition led by Jesse Jackson in his 1984 and 1988 presidential races, the community had not been able to parlay those gains into full recognition and acceptance in the national party.

In 1984, for example, then Democratic nominee Walter Mondale was not interested in Arab American support. And in 1988, after Arab Americans led the platform debate at the Democratic Convention on Palestinian rights, that year’s nominee, Michael Dukakis rejected the endorsement of Arab American Democrats.

In 1989, when Jesse Jackson’s former campaign chairman Ron Brown became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the situation began to turn around. In his first act as party leader, Brown scheduled a meeting with me to signal that the doors of the party would be open to Arab Americans. He recognized our Arab American Democratic Clubs and regularly spoke at our events.

In 1992, it was, therefore, troubling to us to discover that some aides in the Clinton campaign were blocking our entry into the campaign. In fact, one of those aides, a leader in a national Jewish organization, directly confronted me at one point and told me “I know you want to participate, but it won’t happen. Why should I let you in, when all you want to do is challenge us on Israel?”

I was incensed. Brown attempted to help, but told me that I should also garner other support. At the advice of a friend, I went to see Senator Lieberman, who was known o be a close friend of Governor Clinton.

When I told Senator Lieberman the story he became indignant. He called the Clinton campaign and demanded our inclusion. Within days, our Arab American group was invited to the campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas to map out plans for our involvement in the campaign.

When I heard the news of Senator Lieberman’s nomination to be Al Gore’s running mate, I recalled this episode. I knew that the nomination would prove troublesome to many Arab Americans, but I also knew that Senator Lieberman could, if given the opportunity, develop a positive relationship with the community.

I therefore, urged that the candidate meet with Arab Americans as soon as possible to begin this effort.

***

On Sunday, August 27, 2000, Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman met with a group of Michigan Arab American leaders. The meeting was important and historic for a number of reasons.

While Lieberman’s breakthrough nomination had delighted many in the American Jewish community, it had in fact, created some discomfort among Arab Americans.

It was not the Senator’s religion that was of concern. In part, Arab Americans worried about the Senator’s voting record on issues of importance to the community. His effort to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which would have disrupted the Middle East peace process, and his sponsorship of the 1998 Senate letter that sought to restrain President Clinton’s peace efforts were two cases in point.

There was also resentment and some degree of fear borne of Arab Americans’ experience with exclusion at many levels of US politics. Oftentimes, campaigns would directly tell Arab Americans that their reason for excluding the community was the fear that their involvement might alienate Jewish support!

In a similar vein, Arab Americans viewed with alarm their near total absence from meaningful positions in the White House, State Department, and Department of Justice. It was just one year ago that major Jewish leaders launched a campaign demanding the removal of my son from his post at the State Department.

Given this history, some Arab Americans expressed the concern that Joe Lieberman’s nomination, which many Americans have heralded as promising a breakthrough for other minority groups, might not, in the end, include the same promise for them.

Hence, the Arab American meeting with Joe Lieberman provided an important opportunity to clear the air and create a degree of confidence between the candidates and the community. As a participant, I felt that it was important for other reasons as well.

First and foremost, the meeting was a recognition of Arab Americans’ growing stature in the US, and especially in Michigan politics. There are more than 350,000 Arab Americans in Michigan, and given the community’s higher than average turnout in national elections, they count for 4-5% of Michigan’s electorate. Statements by a number of Michigan’s congressional delegation who were present at the event provided further evidence of this recognized clout, as well as the fact that Arab American concerns with the Middle East peace process, the suffering of the Iraqi people, and the civil rights of immigrants are critical issues that must the addressed.

What was also important was the new responsiveness being shown by Democrats toward Arab Americans. It is not only President Bill Clinton who has reached out to the community. Al Gore addressed a national conference of Arab Americans held in Michigan in November of 1999 (the third time he spoke before an Arab American national gathering during his Vice Presidency). Tipper Gore spent an afternoon visiting with Michigan’s Arab American community in March 2000 and now, on his first solo campaign swing, Joe Lieberman spent over an hour in a frank and open exchange with Arab American leaders.

The meeting was described by both Senator Lieberman and leaders of the Arab American community as “the promising beginning of a new dialogue”. There were no dramatic breakthroughs, no “epiphanies of the soul”. There was, however, an honest and thorough discussion of issues, and a determined effort to create understanding and trust.

In his opening comments, Senator Lieberman set the tone for the meeting by recalling how he had fought for Arab Americans to gain access to the Clinton campaign in 1992, and how he had worked in the Senate to ensure recognition and respect for Arab Americans and American Muslims. When some Jewish groups were demanding that the American Muslim Council be ostracized in Washington, Lieberman sponsored their Iftar dinner on Capitol Hill. He also sponsored a Senate resolution we had drafted calling on the Congress to stop demonizing Islam. When the AMC awarded Senator Lieberman for his efforts, he proudly accepted this acknowledgement, over the objections of some Jewish groups.

Senator Lieberman concluded his opening remarks by committing to the assembled group of Arab Americans that he would work to see that his breakthrough nomination would help to create breakthroughs in jobs and appointments and in protecting the rights of Arab Americans in a future Gore-Lieberman administration. Just saying so isn’t enough, he said, “we’ve got to do it.”

Differences emerged in the discussion of several domestic and foreign policy issues. The Senator, while not pandering, displayed some movement in his positions and an impressive openness to learn more from Arab Americans.

With regard to Jerusalem he made the observation that while he had, in fact, sponsored the legislation to move the U.S. embassy, after observing the progress in the peace talks, he now felt it was best to “stand back” and let the parties complete their negotiations. He noted that the discussions (to divide Jerusalem, to establish a Palestinian state and to deal with the Palestinian refugees) now taking place in Israel and between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have moved “way beyond the discussions that have taken place in the U.S. Senate.”

And with regard to the economic sanctions against Iraq, Lieberman noted that it was “an unsatisfactory policy.” He also spoke of his hope for a comprehensive peace that includes Syria and Lebanon and pledged his support for an immediate increase in U.S. aid to Lebanon. “This is,” he stated, “a historic opportunity” to help Lebanon.

He spoke of his recent visit to Lebanon and meetings with leaders there and of his long friendships with Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian and other Arab leaders.

I came away from the encounter struck by the possibility that the nomination of Joe Lieberman may, if it continues to be handled constructively by all sides, present a historic opportunity for Arab Americans.

One interesting by-product of the meeting was that an Arab American Republican leader called me to observe that after hearing of the Lieberman meeting, the Republican leadership now wanted to set up a meeting for Arab American Republicans with their vice presidential nominee, Richard Cheney. It would, in the end, be rather exciting if the 2000 elections marked an end to political exclusion and the beginning of an era in which Arab Americans were shown respect by both parties.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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