Posted on October 27, 2003 in Washington Watch

When in 1948, then President Harry S. Truman met with his advisor to discuss whether or not the U.S. would recognize the soon to be declared Jewish State of Israel, he was reminded by State Department officials of Arab concerns and of U.S. interests in the Middle East. Truman’s response was quite revealing. He said “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

After last weekend’s Arab American Institute (AAI) National Leadership Conference it is clear that something has changed in American politics. It is no longer possible for a president or a candidate for the presidency to say what Harry Truman said. Arab Americans are now an established, recognized and respected part of the American political scene.

Now Arab Americans must not make too much out of the fact that the chair of President Bush’s reelection committee and eight of the nine Democratic presidential candidates accepted to address the community’s leadership meeting. But they should not dismiss the significance of the event either. In other words, Arab Americans must not overreach or overstate the level of the community’s development or the extent of their political clout. Though concentrated in a few key electoral states, the numbers and influence of the Arab American vote are still relatively small. On the other hand, because the 2004 election is expected to be as close as the 2000 contest, even a small but well organized community can have an impact.

That, after all, is why so many candidates came and courted Arab American voters last week.

What was especially noteworthy was the way that several of the candidates made a determined effort to address the community’s political concerns on both foreign and domestic policy issues.

Many of the Democrats, for example, harshly rebuked the failure of the Bush Administration to condemn the anti-Muslim comments of Pentagon official Lt. General Jerry Boykin. They also struck out at the policies of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Both of these lines of attack resonated with the Arab American conferees. In fact the biggest applause received by Senator Joseph Lieberman, Governor Howard Dean and General Wesley Clark were for their strong stands against the anti-immigrant and anti-Arab policies pursued by Ashcroft’s Department of Justice.

Even the Chair of the Bush Administration’s reelection committee acknowledged that these policies required review and retooling.

Iraq was a major topic of discussion at the weekend meeting with most of the Democrats in fundamental agreement on the need for a new policy to assist post-war Iraq reconstruction. There was a near uniform rejection of unilateralism and preemption and a consensus on the need to rapidly involve the UN and the Iraqi people in rebuilding the country.

Most interesting were the candidates’ comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once again there was largely consensus on the need for a two-state solution and sharp criticism for the Bush Administration’s failure to remain “actively and consistently engaged in the search for peace.”

Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a long-time supporter of Palestinian rights, reiterated his strong and balanced position on Middle East peace. Governor Dean received sustained applause for his commitment to appoint former President Bill Clinton as Middle East peace envoy. But the weekend’s most interesting comments on this issue came from Senator John Kerry who spoke passionately and eloquently about Palestinian hardships and suffering resulting from the Occupation and Israel’s Wall.

The conference was a success and marked a turning point both for Arab Americans and the U.S. policy debate about Middle East issues. In the period leading up to the weekend, while reviewing his intended remarks, one of the candidates suggested to me that he would first discuss health care and the economy and then, he said, “I’ll discuss your issues.” “No,” I responded, “health care and the economy are our issues too. And civil liberties and our failed Middle East politics are also issues that affect all Americans. They are all our issues.”

When one of the candidates arrived at our meeting he noted to me that addressing Middle East issues had become difficult-“like threading a needle”-trying to balance the concerns of the Jewish and Arab communities. This, by itself, was a sign of the progress that has been made. A decade ago, it was easy to speak about the Middle East. No balance was necessary-because Arab Americans did not factor into the discussion.

The fact that Arab Americans now exist and are recognized means that their views, while not decisive, are a factor to be considered. That is good for the community and it is good for our country, as well.

A final note: the significance of the Arab American Leadership Conference was recognized by the quality and content of the national press coverage it received. For three days America’s news networks reported hourly on the event, featuring interviews with Arab American attendees. The major newspapers headlined the conference daily. Headlines read: “US Arab Voting Clout Grows”, “Arab Americans Gain Larger Political Profile”, “Arab Americans Unite for Bigger Political Role”, and “Candidates Court Arab American Vote”.

Two days after the conference, one of America’s most respected political commentators wrote in his syndicated column of the successful two-decade long journey of Arab Americans into the political mainstream. He concluded “it is the party that recognizes-and rewards-the new claimants to political power that will survive and thrive. And that is why this gathering was important.”

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