Posted on November 29, 1995 in Washington Watch

With little fanfare, 22 Arab Americans had a historic meeting with both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. The November 9 meeting, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, marked only the sixth time that a U.S. President met with the national leadership of the Arab American community.

This was the most representative group of Arab Americans ever brought to the White House. As such, it reflected the excellent outreach effort of the Administration’s Office of Public Liaison (OPL). During the past three years OPL has made a sustained effort to contact and involve all segments of the Arab American community in a number of White House events and initiatives.

The composition of the Arab American group also is a reflection of the extent to which the community is maturing and developing as an organized constituency in U.S. politics. Among the 22 were the heads of most of the national Arab American organizations, leaders of most of the larger country-specific groups, leaders from both political parties (including two Republicans who had served as officials in the Reagan Administration and three Trustees of the Democratic National Committee – i.e., major donors to the party) and Arab American elected and appointed public officials.

During the hour-long meeting, we engaged the President on a number of issues central to our community’s concerns.

Only a few days before the government shutdown, President Clinton opened the discussion by focusing on his concerns with the ongoing budget debate. He emphasized that from his Administrations’ perspective, the debate was more than an issue of numbers: at stake were two different visions of the role of government and its responsibility toward people. The President made clear his intention to veto the Republican budget proposal because it cuts in social spending – for medical care for the elderly, for education, for protection of the environment, and for the poor and disabled – were too severe.

Turning to the Middle East peace process in the wake of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the President affirmed his resolve to support Palestinians and Israelis as they make their agreements and to work toward a comprehensive regional peace.

In my opening remarks, and in response to the President, I noted that our community shared the Administration’s concern with the growing danger of extremism both at home in the U.S. and abroad in the Middle East. The harshness and intolerance that motivated the assassin of Rabin, and the same phenomenon in its U.S. domestic variety, has become a threat to Arab American and American Muslims in the U.S. It was this extremism that accused the Arab and Muslim American communities in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing – and has endangered our rights by focusing anti-terrorism legislation as if Arabs and Muslims were its prime targets. Extremism from the far-right in the U.S. has also targeted the peace process, seeking to impede its progress by passing irresponsible and destructive legislation against the PLO on the subject of Jerusalem. And, finally, this same right-wing sentiment seeking to close America’s borders to new immigration and to deny social benefits to legal immigrants who are lawfully entitled to them.

The President responded positively to all these concerns and reaffirmed that he would not allow legislation efforts by Congress to stop the peace process, which is why he opposed the Jerusalem legislation, and that he is equally concerned about the scape-goating of immigrants. Responding, in part to our concern about the unfair treatment being meted out to legal immigrants, the President indicated his commitment to veto the welfare reform legislation which has just passed Congress. This issue had been brought to the President’s attention by one of the Arab American leaders present, Ismael Ahmed, Director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), the nation’s largest social service organization which works with Arab Americans in Dearborn, Michigan.

Other issues raised by the assembled Arab American leadership included the impediments to economic development in the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Hani Masri, a Washington, DC businessman and a Trustee of the Democratic Party stressed that if Israel did not remove the impediments it has placed on the Palestinian economy, the Palestinians would not receive the needed economic benefits of peace and the peace process itself would suffer.

The President clearly understood this concern and emphasized that he shared the conviction that Palestinians must experience the benefits of peace if the process is to work. He committed, as he had at an earlier discussion, to review the impediments issue and to work with us to find ways to balance security concerns with economic development.

In response to an appeal from former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Tom Nassif (who currently chairs the American Task Force on Lebanon) that the travel ban on Lebanon be removed, both the President and Vice President indicated that the issue would be reviewed. Nassif’s arguments for Lebanon’s sovereignty and for an end to the ban appeared to move the President, who has in the past spoken eloquently in support of the U.S.-Lebanese relationship.

As the meeting was concluding, we brought up other issues we wished to follow-up on with the White House at a later date – one of which was an issues brought to the table by Michigan’s large Iraqi Chaldean community concerning the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

On hearing this issue raised, President Clinton immediately responded with an expression of his deep concern over the situation. “Some nights I can’t sleep thinking about the children of Iraq,” the President said. He reminded us that Saddam Hussein could end this crisis if he agreed to enact UN Security Council Resolutions designed to allow Iraq to sell oil to raise hard currency which the international community would use to provide humanitarian for the people of the country. But. Clinton noted that Saddam had not agreed to that resolution, and as the recent defections from Iraq made clear, Saddam still has not faithfully implemented the other UN Security Council Resolutions which are required before international sanctions can be lifted against the country.

Nevertheless, the President expressed his interest in receiving specific proposals from Arab Americans to address the issue of providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq, with the provision that no such assistance must benefit Saddam’s regime. Follow-up meetings will be held with Administration officials on all of these issues as Arab Americans build on this meeting with the President and Vice President.

As further evidence of the Administration’s respect for the community, less than one hour after joining the President in the hour-long leadership meeting, Vice President Gore came to the site of our Tenth Anniversary AAI Conference to address the entire gathering. In his remarks the Vice President noted with clear pride:

“The U.S. leadership has helped create the best chance for peace in Bosnia since the war began. ...America has helped lead the way to a ceasefire and to the negotiations that are now underway. We have a responsibility to do our part in its implementation. Our values and our interests demand nothing less – to stop the outrageous slaughter; to prevent war from spreading; to help build a united Europe at peace.”

In recognition of the role Arab Americans have played in U.S. life, the Vice President stated:

“Arab Americans have always exemplified the middle ground: seeking opportunity, taking responsibility. Working your way into America’s mainstream while preserving your rich traditions. ...President Clinton came to office to preserve and fortify those values, values that Arab Americans practice every day. And the President has enlisted Arab Americans in this undertaking – cabinet officers like Donna Shalala, White House staffers like Tom Kalil and Julia Moffet, and from my own staff Greg Simon and Holly Carver.”

Gore also showed concern and awareness of a tragic issue which has been eating away at the community for the past two years when he declared: “The President is committed to expanding the middle class and shrinking the underclass; to rebuilding our cities, reviving our neighborhoods and restoring our families. Every time an Arab American merchant is murdered, the values of hard work and individual initiative are betrayed.”

The Vice President concluded by noting:

“Every time I travel from the White House to my residence, I pass the garden memorial named for Khalil Gibran, whose words, which I paraphrase, I will leave you with tonight: As your ancestors have been builders of Damascus, Beirut and Cairo, you should be builders of New York, Chicago, Detroit, and whatever cities you reside in this new world.

“We must move forward together – build peace together.”

***

The meeting at the White House was significant both because of the depth and diversity of the Arab American leaders present and the substance of the issues they raised. There is a recognition that Arab Americans are a political constituency that can play a role in elections and policy formation.

For a community that has long been ignored and for too long been too intensely self-critical (“we’re too divided” “we’re too weak,” etc.), Arab Americans can be proud both of the performance of those who represented the community at the White House, and that the Administration has worked with Arab Americans to bring us to the table.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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