Arab American Leaders Raise Concerns with White House, State Department Officials
By Munir K. Nasser
Chief Correspondent, Washington, DC
A delegation of Arab and Muslim American leaders called upon President Clinton in his final days in office to issue a strong statement supporting Palestinian aspirations for an independent state and to express opposition to Israeli settlements.
The delegation met Monday with administration officials at the White House and the State Department and expressed concern on issues dealing with Israel’s violation of US laws by using American weapons against unarmed Palestinian civilians, and the mandate of the Fact-Finding Committee headed by George Mitchell.
The delegation, which included almost 40 representatives of 20 Arab and Muslim American organizations in the United States, held a meeting at the White House with Rob Malley, Director of the Office of Near East at the National Security Council. The delegation received a briefing on the latest developments in the region and submitted some specific requests on issues of concern to the community.
The delegation also met at the State Department with Thomas Pickering, Undersecretary of State and participated in a conference call with Secretary of State Albright who addressed the group by phone from Botswana during her African trip.
After the meetings, Jim Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute told reporters the discussion with the officials “was very positive and we got straight answers to all our questions.” He said that Arab American leaders urged President Clinton to issue a statement that will include a vision of what a comprehensive settlement would look like for the Palestinians. “We recommended to the White House that as this administration winds down to the next administration, whoever that is, we feel it is important for the President or the Secretary to lay down benchmarks for the next administration,” he said.
Zogby noted that the group requested a clarification of US view on settlements, on Jerusalem, and an elaboration on the US view on the statehood rights for Palestinians. “Statements of that sort could help both sides put a cap on where we are. Remember it was Reagan who used his lame duck period to open dialogue with the PLO. Yet Carter used it to better define the issue of settlements,” he explained.
Zogby urged the Clinton administration that instead of raising the hopes for a peace process that may not complete itself, it should use whatever is left of its final days to at least give some hope where there is currently despair. “If the President were to make some very strong comments about settlements, or Palestinian rights, I think we will be in a much better position to tell the Palestinians we’ve got something here,” he stressed.
In their meeting with the officials, the delegation asked for specific written answers to questions they raised over the years with the administration, including Arab American rights in Israel. “We have been told that Secretary Albright and National Security adviser Sandy Berger met with Israeli officials on that issue,” said Zogby. “We were told that they have reached a conclusion and come up with a positive answer. We want a response in writing on what was done on our behalf in that regard and what progress has been made,” he stressed.
The delegation also raised the issue of Israel’s use of US weapons against Palestinians, which they believe is done in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. “We have asked the Administration to look into Israel's use of US weapons against unarmed civilians and they promised to give us a written response,” said Zogby.
The delegation expressed concern about recent comments by Albright during a conference call with American Jewish leaders. The comments, which were leaked to the press, quoted her as saying: “The Palestinians are fomenting the atmosphere, the mood, and the violence.” She was also quoted as saying: “There is no moral equivalence” between Palestinian violence against Israel and Israeli self-defense. The delegation asked for clarification of these comments, and the officials disavowed press reports that laid exclusive blame for the current situation on the Palestinians. “We were told those comments did not reflect what the Secretary said, and I would just leave it at that,” said Zogby.
The delegation raised concerns about the mission and terms of reference of the Fact-Finding Commission of George Mitchell. They stressed that for the Commission to be fair and relevant, it must address the root causes of the violence and call for UN observers, which can offer protection to civilians. According to delegation members, the officials made assurances that the international commission headed by Senator George Mitchell is an independent body. The officials also noted that despite press reports to the contrary, there has been no agreement between the United States and Israel on "terms of reference" that limit the Commission's operations.
On the issue of US-Arab relations, the delegation urged the Clinton administration to adopt a new paradigm that will look at US bilateral relations with the individual Arab states rather than exclusively through their role in the Middle East peace process. The delegation urged that the US should abandon the “Israel and her neighbors” prism for a broader vision that will help restore American standing in the region.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)