By Munir K. Nasser
In a meeting with a group of Arab American leaders, Democratic nominee for vice president, Senator Joe Lieberman, assured them that he would work to see that the breakthroughs represented by his nomination as a Jewish candidate would be extended to Arab Americans as well.
A group of 25 Arab American leaders met with Lieberman in Detroit on Sunday, August 27, at the invitation of the Democratic campaign in an effort to court the Michigan Arab community’s vote to support the Gore-Lieberman ticket in the November elections. Polls have shown that the states of Michigan and Ohio are very critical for the Democrats to win the elections. The Arab vote in Michigan is about 4 percent of the statewide vote, which could make a big difference in a close race.
The closed meeting, which lasted more than one hour, provided the first opportunity for the Arab American leaders to engage Lieberman on issues of concern to them on the Middle East and on domestic civil rights concerns related to their community. Lieberman responded to a wide range of topics including: the peace process, the US embassy in Israel, economic sanctions against Iraq, the use of secret evidence in deportation proceedings and the negative impact of 1996 immigration legislation.
According to some who participated in the meeting, they came away with mixed impressions. There were those who think the meeting was positive and will open future doors for Arab Americans in a Gore-Lieberman administration, while others said the meeting failed to dismiss Arab Americans’ fears regarding his pro-Israel positions on the Middle East.
Jim Zogby, President of the American Arab Institute who participated in the meeting, noted, “it was frank and thoughtful.” He said it was impressive to see the campaign reaching out to hear Arab American views. He added the meeting represented "a significant first” and was a sign of respect for Michigan's growing Arab American community."
Zogby told Albawaba.com that he believes that Lieberman is an open person and will fight for Arab Americans to be included. “He promised to work for our people to have jobs and appointments in his administration,” he said. He added the meeting did not please everybody, but it was a very important initial effort. He said the Democrats are appointing Arab Americans in staff position in the campaign “which we never had before. I hope this step is matched on the Republican side.”
Others who attended the meeting said the general consensus was that Lieberman’s position on Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinians and Iraqi sanctions was negative and not complementary. George Adib Khoury, Representative of the Michigan Chapter of the American Committee on Jerusalem who participated in the meeting, told Albawaba.com that he did not see any positive movement on Lieberman’s positions on issues related to the Palestinians.
Khoury challenged Lieberman and told him that “I am a Christian Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and lived in camp conditions for many years and I have no right to return, and yet the Jews from around the world have the right of return,” he said. “He did not give any position on that, or even say that he is going to investigate it and work on it. He simply has no positive and clear position to our advantage. From that point of view, the meeting was a failure,” he noted.
According to Zogby, when the discussion touched on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, Lieberman acknowledged that the recent talks between Palestinians and Israelis, and even the internal debate in Israel, seemed to be out in front of where he and many of his congressional colleagues have been.
“What he said on Jerusalem was important,” Zogby said. “He put his hand to his heart and said: ‘look, I have my personal feelings. I voted the way I feel. I am now part of the national ticket.’
Lieberman then reasserted his position that final status issues should be left to negotiations between the parties.
In the meeting, Khoury told Lieberman that the Arab American leaders are not coming here to endorse him. “I told him we are coming here to know his point of view about some issues that affect us and are detrimental to us,” he said. Khoury insisted that Lieberman has to take a stand and “if it is in agreement with our agenda, then he can have our votes. Our position will be decided by his positive response to our concerns, which are right and human.”
Khoury believes that Lieberman’s ambiguity was a negative by itself. “His answers show that he does not want to commit himself, which means he can do whatever he wants later on, and my vote is wasted on somebody who would probably take a negative stand toward the Palestinian final solution,” he explained.
In response to a question whether Arab Americans are going to vote for Gore-Lieberman, Khoury said many Arabs will not vote for Lieberman because of his unclear stand on the issues, especially his position on Jerusalem that is clearly anti Palestinian. He believes the Arab American community will vote according to their personal preferences, whether they are Republicans or Democrats. As for Democrats who disagree with Lieberman, they are taking different directions, with some people going to the Green Party with Ralph Nader and others going to the Republican side.
Zogby, however, believes Arab Americans will support the Gore-Lieberman ticket. “We have lots of Democrats around the country who are going to support it. And they want a reason to feel better about it,” he said. In return, Zogby asked Lieberman for commitments on hiring Arab Americans, and openness on the issues and being more supportive of the peace process and not take the position he took during his Senate career. “I think he has already moved in that direction,” he said.
Some representatives at the meeting said however, that in spite of Lieberman’s negative position on the Middle East, it is better for Arab Americans to work with him because that will open to them another avenue. Although several said they were encouraged by Lieberman's willingness to meet again, they did not feel confident to encourage others in the community to back the Democratic ticket enthusiastically.
Michigan's Arab American community numbers more than 350,000 with more than 70 percent of Arab Americans in the Detroit metropolitan area registered to vote. Sixty percent of that community voted in the last presidential election – Albawaba.com
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )