Posted on March 26, 1996 in Washington Watch

The confluence of the Israeli elections and the U.S. elections and the aftermath of the suicide bombings in Israel have created a dynamic that is having a negative impact on some of the efforts of the Arab American community.

The trauma created by the wave of terrorist attacks in Israel has generated a spill-over effect in both the American Jewish community and the pro-Israel leadership in Congress. The bombings have created a pretext for Congress to freeze even the limited U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians and to engage in unrestrained Arafat-bashing.

Since 1993, enemies of the Middle East peace process applied systematic pressure on U.S. support for the Palestinians. As a result, U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians is provided only with humiliating and encumbering conditions. Now, those who have long opposed this U.S. assistance – and even the resumption of the U.S.-Palestinian dialogue – have found an opportunity to stop the flow of assistance altogether.

President Clinton’s efforts to shore up support for Prime Minister Shimon Peres were widely praised in the U.S., and there was no resistance to the White House’s co-convening of an anti-terrorism summit or providing Israel with new security-related technology and $100 million in new anti-terrorism equipment.

On the other hand, Arab American efforts to secure White House and State Department support for some humanitarian assistance to alleviate Palestinian suffering caused by the Israeli closure of the West Bank and Gaza have drawn little support. While the Administration knows that any initiatives taken to support Israel will receive Congressional approval, they argue that Congress would not be willing in an election year to enact any initiatives or proposals to support Palestinians.

The President knows the depth of the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian community and the danger that it portends for Palestinian support of the peace process and he has indicated that he is deeply troubled by this situation. But White House and State Department aides have so far not been forthcoming in seriously challenging Congressional obstruction in an effort to meet Palestinian needs.

As Congress sounds more and more like Likud and the Administration bureaucracy flounders (and focuses solely on anti-terrorism measures), the mainstream American Jewish leadership has mirrored developments in Israel and apparently lost its zest for moving forward with a strong commitment to peace. While admitting disappointment and even depression over recent developments, even some liberal American Jewish groups have called for a freezing of the process – hoping to buy time until the end of the Israeli elections.

If these developments were not disturbing enough, the campaign against “pro-Hamas organizations in the U.S. has been restarted with renewed vigor. An extension of the campaign in Israel, this effort seeks to stop support for Hamas that is allegedly coming from American Muslims. The initiator of this campaign was the notorious anti-terrorism legislation, which was sought to designate as terrorist certain Middle East groups and then to make economic support for them illegal. The Arab American concern with the legislation is that the bill is written so loosely that it would lead to violations of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of many Americans to support even the humanitarian, charitable and educational activities of many Middle East institutions. A broad-based coalition of liberal and conservative civil libertarians (mentioned in a previous column) once again defeated the bill two weeks ago. But the political campaign attempting to link legitimate American Muslim groups as “terrorist” has continued.

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial and in testimony before both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a pro-Likud analyst defamed even the mainstream American Muslim Council, calling it an “extremist fundamentalist group” that “supports Hamas terror.” The editorial, “Hamas Comes to the White House,” was an obvious effort to embarrass First Lady Hillary Clinton for recently inviting the American Muslim Council to celebrate Eid al-fitr at a White House-sponsored dinner, and to erase all the gains that the American Muslim and Arab American communities have made in gaining acceptance and recognition in recent years.

What is disturbing is the failure of American Jewish organizations that know the AMC and have worked with them in coalitions on Bosnia to come forward and defend the AMC’s integrity and rights.

If left unchecked, this White House inaction, Congressional hostility, and defensiveness of American Jewish organizations, could lead to even more dangerous circumstances – such as a complete collapse of the peace process and a further deterioration of the political gains won by Arab Americans and American Muslims.

It is for this reason that the Arab American Institute has called for an emergency summit of Arab American leaders in Washington. The summit will seek to address:

· the recent wave of suicide bombings that have taken innocent lives and have placed the peace process in jeopardy;
· the closure of the West Bank and Gaza and the resulting humanitarian and economic crisis that has become life-threatening to the Palestinian people and damaging to their confidence in the peace process and the leadership that has pursued peace;
· the suspension of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks and escalation of the conflict in the south of Lebanon, all of which raise concern that Lebanon may again be victimized by a massive Israeli assault; and
· the hostile behavior of Congress toward Arab and Arab American concerns and the failure of the Administration to effectively respond to any of these challenges.

During the day-long summit, Arab Americans will be briefed by White House, State Department, Congressional, Palestinian, and Lebanese leadership and will work to fashion an Arab American political agenda that will:

· make unequivocal our commitment to the peace process, our disappointment with the pace and one-sided nature of its implementation, and our condemnation of terrorism in all its forms;
· make specific and implemental policy recommendations designed to alleviate Palestinian suffering and bring the long-awaited benefits of peace to this beleaguered people;
· express our support for American Muslim organizations and make clear our concern that the effort to stop domestic support for Middle East groups that use terrorism must not become a bigoted witch-hunt that endangers the civil and political rights of innocent groups and individuals; and
· issue a challenge to the leadership of the American Jewish community to meet with us and work with us to support a balanced approach to peace and justice that can transform political realities in both the Middle East and the U.S.

There is no certainty that Arab Americans alone can bring about a breakthrough in the current situation. But the options are to either let the peace process die, a victim of its enemies and the inaction of its friends; or to make a determined effort to challenge the system to respond to affirm the process.

We have decided that the second choice is a risk worth taking.

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