Posted on May 08, 2014 in Countdown

Gibran Gala Brings Together the Arab American Community

On April 25th we hosted our annual Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Awards Gala here in Washington and social media was a buzz throughout the event. This year, we honored Senator George J. Mitchell for his extraordinary career in public service, Participant Media for their vision and leadership in social justice, and Martin Luther King III for the legacy of his family and the work he does to keep their vision alive. Gibran was an evening for our community to reconnect, celebrate our achievements, and reflect on the path that lies ahead. George Mitchell shared the impact his family had on his career, Participant gave the audience a first-ever sneak peek at the upcoming animated film on Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” and MLK III urged the Arab American community to continue the “unfinished work” started by his parents. But Gibran isn’t just about enjoying a celebratory dinner with friends – each year, the Gala coincides with our annual Leadership Days. Over the course of two days, Arab American leaders from around the country met with policymakers and members of the administration on Capitol Hill and at the White House. They participated in discussions about domestic and foreign policy issues that affect our community, ranging from domestic issues including immigration and NSA surveillance to foreign policy issues including Palestine and Syria. Nothing like a party with a purpose.

Visas, Compromise and Spies - OH MY!

The last time we addressed the controversy around Israel’s entrance to the Visa Waiver Program, we were applauding the State Department’s long overdue acknowledgement that Israel fails to qualify for the program based on its long history of discriminating against American citizens. Since then, we learned the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security committed to forming a working group to “to help Israel move toward eligibility” for the program at the request of some Members of Congress, who are also doing their share to help Israel along in the process. Initially introduced in 2013, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act is receiving renewed attention and is reportedly going to mark-up next week with Senate floor action expected shortly thereafter. The Act would undermine the reciprocity requirements, saying Israel could be accepted to the program if it “makes every reasonable effort” to extend reciprocal travel privileges to all qualified U.S. citizens if it does not “compromise the security of the State of Israel.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have promised to reconsider his country’s practices at the border, but his promises mean little. We must have demonstrable proof that Israel has changed its ways and established a record of not discriminating against U.S. citizens based on their ethnic origin, religion or their political sympathies. Oh, and did we mention the reports that Israeli spying on the United States is impacting debate on this issue? So until then, we’ll stick with a simple position: #NoWaiver4Israel.

Egypt Continues to Come Full Circle

We have an update for you on Egypt: nothing has changed. The lack of progress was evinced in many ways by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy's all icing, no cake visit to Washington last week. During his tour, Fahmy made the usual rounds and adhered to the usual talking points about Egypt’s security concerns and the transitional governments’ commitment to restoring democracy in the country, and effectively evaded questions about the serious human rights abuses taking place in Egypt. However, every day, more bad news comes out of Egypt, whether the massive sham trials sentencing hundreds of people to prison and death, incarcerations of journalists and April 6 activists, including founders Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, or the weak economic prospects. The U.S. response: Egypt recently received 10 more Apache helicopters, the six-month freeze on some $1.5 billion in U.S. aid is being partially lifted, and Secretary of State John Kerry praised the “positive” step taken in adopting a constitution while also expressing concern over the transition. Kerry also criticized recent events, saying “it’s actions not words that will make the difference.” We agree. It’s becoming painstakingly evident that Egypt’s actions are coming full circle and it seems the more things “change,” the more they stay the same.

Israeli Settler Attacks: If It Quacks Like a Duck…

In the recently released Country Reports on Terror 2013, the U.S. State Department recorded the spread of attacks against Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Israel over the past year. The State Department conveniently adopts Israel’s language, calling the violence “price tag” attacks and defining them as “property crimes and violent acts by extremist Jewish individuals and groups in retaliation for activity they deemed to be ant-settlement.” Let’s call it what it is: violence by Israelis against Palestinians and their property. The mostly congratulatory report on Israeli actions to prevent terrorism in the region singles out these “price tag” attacks as going “largely unprosecuted.” We aren’t surprised. Israeli PM Netanyahu does not define these crimes as acts of terror – a calculated decision that bows to the influence of extremist settlers, prevents the full measure of the law from dealing with perpetrators, and maintains the convenient idea that only Arabs are terrorists. Given the Israeli policing system set up to defend and protect Israeli settlers in the West Bank, is it really shocking that these crimes go mostly unpunished? Palestinian security forces have no jurisdiction over 60% of the West Bank, where Israeli settlement expansion has led to these attacks. While we applaud the State Department’s inclusion of violence against Palestinians in their report, we are hard pressed to find another compliment. For years, the U.S. government has overlooked how widespread and growing these attacks are, how Israeli security forces systematically ignore the crimes, and how Israel’s unabated settlement policies lead to this violence that ultimately undermines the peace process. Even prominent Israeli leaders are getting it right. So maybe at a minimum, we can use the correct language and refer to attacks designed to terrorize a civilian population accurately.

Staying Cautious on NSA Reforms

Almost four months after President Obama’s January speech on government surveillance and two months after the President detailed how he intends to reform the NSA, Washington is moving to actually provide substantial reforms and policies that safeguard privacy and civil liberties, right? Well, not exactly. In an important development, the USA Freedom Act, stalled since October, was unanimously approved by members of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. The White House even recently released a three-month review of data collection procedures. But what will reform actually do? John Bates, a former Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court presiding judge who definitely understands these issues, is not all convinced they will be adequate or effective. As POLITICO notes, Bates remains “dubious” about ideas put forth that phone companies could store call metadata instead of the government as well as policies that would increase the FISA court’s workload without providing adequate resources. Turning over storage to third-parties or private companies to store metadata themselves creates new compliance issues which would need to be addressed. Bates detailed concerns and skepticism of surveillance court judges in a letter to Congress in January. He raises important considerations that remain vital to ensuring reforms are effective and efforts move forward in a productive way.

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