Posted on October 11, 1999 in Washington Watch

The 2000 elections are shaping up to be the most hotly contested and most interesting races in many years. They will provide Arab Americans a significant opportunity to reestablish the political role of the community.

There will be critical contests on every level. And the stakes are extremely high. Control of the White House, the Senate and Congress are all up for grabs.

Despite early polls, the presidential race will be close and may feature as many as four candidates (the Republican, the Democrat, a Reform party candidate and, quite possibly, a major challenge from the Green Party).

Because the stakes are so high and the race will be so tight, the competition for votes will be intense–especially in those states which history has shown are decisive in determining the outcome of national elections.

All of this is good news for Arab Americans. The so-called “battleground states” in presidential elections are the very states which are home to the largest concentrations of Arab Americans. Almost 1/3 of the Arab American community (more than 1,000,000) live in this critical belt of states stretching from Illinois to New Jersey. Many of 2000s important and hotly contested Senate and congressional races are also in these states.

Of equal importance for Arab Americans is the fact that the community is now better recognized as a political constituency. Our efforts during the past few elections have created an awareness of the “Arab American vote.” As a result, outreach to the community is on the agenda of both major political parties. An important article in the New York Times during the run up to the 1996 elections noted how, in Michigan, both the Democratic White House and that state’s Republican governor expended significant energy in outreach directed at winning Arab Americans votes. Early indications point to the fact that these efforts are being repeated for 2000.

In fact, the political progress of the community has been significant. Voter registration is up, as is voter turnout. Arab Americans now participate in major fundraising for candidates and parties, further enhancing the role of the community. And it is expected that this year, as in the past three presidential elections, over 80 Arab Americans will be elected as delegates and party leaders to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

The readiness of Arab Americans to participate and the openness of the parties to work with them, in the 2000 elections, has been established by two separate days organized for Arab American political activists during the past two months.

On the Democratic day, 40 Arab American Democratic activists and elected officials came to Washington and were given briefings by high level White House, congressional, party and top campaign officials. A similar day for Arab American Republicans will be held this week featuring, once again, high level meetings with Senate, congressional, party and campaign officials.

This picture will become even clearer next month when Arab Americans convene a national leadership meeting in Michigan to prepare for 2000. The chairs of both major parties are expected to attend, together with high level representatives of the major presidential candidates–all encouraging Arab American involvement in their respective campaigns. Of special note, in this context, is the fact that not only will Arab Americans participate in the 2000 campaign, but they have already earned leadership roles in both parties’ ethnic outreach efforts.

All of this is a far cry from just 15 years ago when less than 10 Arab Americans participated as delegates on the national level and Arab Americans had to fight for recognition and acceptance.

But involvement is not the only thing that will bring Arab Americans into the 2000 elections or to their preparatory National Leadership Conference next month.

Arab Americans are, today, a community with a mission–to help America correct its course in the Middle East and to protect critical American values in both the domestic and foreign policy debates that will characterize the 2000 elections.

Arab Americans have come to realize that because, for decades, they were absent on the political stage, the policy debate on critical Middle East issues became terribly skewed. Recognizing this is one thing, but acting upon it has become the imperative of the day.

Arab Americans know that if they do not fight for a balanced approach to Middle East peace, that struggle will not be won. With the peace process in its critical final stages, with the future of Jerusalem at stake, with the peace and security of both Lebanon and Syria on the agenda, and with the people of Iraq still suffering from a cruel sanctions policy and an equally cruel regime–if Arab Americans do not challenge those who would damn both the region and the United States to the consequences of an unbalanced policy–then these critical issues will not be addressed with the clarity they deserve.

Much the same is true on the domestic front. If a lack of balance or isolation define the negative poles of the foreign policy debate, then prejudice and nativism are the main negative features driving the discourse on critical domestic concerns.

Restrictive immigration laws, curtailing the rights of legal permanent residents, and unconstitutional and discriminatory anti-terrorism laws, have all combined in recent years, not only to threaten the rights of some Arab Americans–but also to seriously erode the fundamental rights of all recent immigrant communities.

In the past, Arab Americans have played an important role in leading the fight against these measures and they have worked to protect basic constitutional rights. But in 2000, Arab Americans will be called upon to bring these issues into the political debate.

Arab Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, can also make important contributions to the national election debate over a wide range of other domestic issues. Because of the culture and values that have shaped the Arab American experience, the community has a great deal to offer in policy discussions regarding education, support for small business development, and issues that involve strengthening and protecting families and communities.

In a real sense then, the Arab American mission goes beyond gaining greater recognition and inclusion in U.S. politics–or protecting their rights and advocating issues of concern. Arab Americans in 2000 will be fighting to help the United States by defending its Constitution and its professed values on the domestic front and by protecting American interests by advocating a foreign policy based on justice and human rights.

It is a huge role for a small community–but it is a necessary role that has fallen on the shoulders of Arab Americans. And given the work done so far and the determination shown by the community–it is a role Arab Americans are determined to play in the critical 2000 elections.

In order to be successful this year, Arab Americans must define realizable goals and take concrete steps to accomplish them. The community must increase its voter strength and organize its vote. The community must also avoid both apolitical distractions on side issues and equally apolitical schemes designed to sap scarce resources that will be needed if an impact is to be made in this political year.

Instead, Arab Americans must harness community resources, smartly bring issues into the heart of the policy debate and build coalitions with other Americans who share similar values. In 2000, Arab Americans must fight like their future and the futures of so many others depended on their efforts–because, in a real sense, they do.

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