(But for how much longer?)
I have to give credit to Senator John Sununu. He showed up at the Arab American Institute’s National Leadership Conference in Dearborn, Michigan this weekend and openly talked about his search for his Palestinian grandfather’s home in old Jerusalem.
Sununu also talked about his attempts to hold back the loss of civil liberties — to a large degree aimed at Arabs and Arab Americans — embedded in the Patriot Act.
And then Sununu talked about his work on a Senate Resolution calling for firm resolve in achieving a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine stand off and said explicitly that America must help engineer the conditions that will lead to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Sununu was saying things before the 600-plus audience that I couldn’t imagine any Republican presidential contenders saying — with the sole exception of Ron Paul who also spoke at the conference (though I was still flying back from India and missed his comments). But I couldn’t really imagine most of the Dems saying what he said as boldly either. Perhaps I’m wrong on that — but I got a quick sample in Hillary Clinton’s “videotaped” message to the Arab American summit.
Hillary seemed genuinely interested in the importance of Arab Americans and sent one of her National Campaign Co-Chairs Lebanese-American William Shaheen (husband of Jeanne and a legend in New Hampshire Democratic politics) to represent her at the conference.
Shaheen was great and connected with the audience and did a great job trying to assure the Arab Americans there that she really does care about the rights of Palestinians and the value of Arab and Arab-American lives as much as she does about Israeli security.
But odd thing about Hillary’s commentary — unlike Sununu, Hillary just did not say “Palestine” or “Palestinian state” in her taped message.
I’m a big fan of James Zogby and the people who run the Arab American Institute — which is essentially a collaborative holding entity for a large network of other social and political groups focused on Arab-American issues. While the group is not nearly as large as AIPAC, it’s influence is high — and given the times we are in, the work that Zogby does is a non-partisan vehicle for the hopes and concerns of approximately 3.5 million Arab Americans.
But unlike the clamor of candidates to speak at the annual AIPAC conference or to appear at various national security forums in Israel, this important Michigan-based conference of the great and the good among Arab Americans was given a frosty shoulder by leading candidates of both parties, and I think that is outrageous.
I think it communicates that a false choice that places Israel’s interests beyond concerns of the Arabic world would be the default position of all the candidates if elected President. The key is to communicate that the best pro-Israel policy is also a pro-Arab policy, and the best pro-Arab policy can be a pro-Israel policy. Some candidates have been seduced into the narrative that relations between the US and Arabs on one hand are a zero sum game pitted against America’s tight relationship with Israel.
As Senator Chuck Hagel has said, that is a “false choice, and a dangerous choice.”
First of all, I want to applaud the fact that Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson took the time to be at this important assembly of Arab Americans.
Let me clap with just one hand the fact that Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama sent videotaped greetings and had “surrogates” represent them in exchanges with the large audience.
I saw nothing there from Chris Dodd or Joe Biden. (may have been my oversight though)
None of the Republicans other than Paul had a serious presence there. Mitt Romney had someone put out some brochures — but neither he, nor Rudy Giuliani, nor Fred Thomspon, nor John McCain sent anyone to meet with national leaders of the premier Arab American leadership conference in the nation.
This should not be tolerated. Yes, America has a close and important strategic partnership with Israel. But to reinforce in the minds of Americans that “closeness” to Arab Americans could be a political negative in the climate we are living in is disgusting and approximates the times we have seen Arab Americans ejected because of their “look” from airplanes, and other discriminatory acts.
I told Arab American Institute President James Zogby how irritating I found the low turnout of leading presidential hopefuls who are making a mistake about the importance of Michigan politics as well as Arab American politics, and he told me that despite what I saw, there have been strides made in the “comfort level” and “acceptance” of Arab Americans into the national political process.
As a comparison of how things are today, his staff shared a quick history of rejection of Arab Americans in national level politics that included:
In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale “returns contributions” to a group of prominent Arab American businessmen.
In 1988, despite Republican nomination candidate Bob Dole speaking at the Arab American Institute’s annual leadership conference, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis rejects an endorsement from the Arab American Democratic Federation
In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole refuses to meet with Arab American Republican leaders
After 1996, the situation improved somewhat in that Al Gore and John McCain both addressed the summit in 1999 via satellite — and now Arab Americans are part of the campaigns in both leading Republican and Democratic presidential races — so the story isn’t all bad.
But the sense of imbalance I have from having attended AIPAC’s annual conference and this meeting is strong.
I’m glad Hillary Clinton, Obama, and Edwards sent videos — but they should have been there.
And shame on Giuiliani, Romney, Thompson, McCain, and the rest — who were just absent.
The room seemed majority Republican — but one could feel the tectonic shift of the community to the Democrats — or to Ron Paul — and away from the Republican frontrunners in a number of cases.
But that said, I’m not sure that the Democratic frontrunners really deserve all that much praise. A video is a video, a nice gesture, but not good enough given the massive amount of time that these Dems have showered upon other ethnic American voting communities.
I think Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama ought to call James Zogby and ask him to bring a group of leading Arab Americans to meet with them and express their concerns about the course the nation is on. I’m sure that Zogby could get such a group to Iowa easily — but the request should come from the campaigns.
And yes, Romney should do the same — but the Giuliani neocon network led by Norman Podhoretz, David Frum, and Daniel Pipes would veto any such meeting between Rudy and leading Arab Americans.
But if Rudy was as boldly sensible as he pretends to be, I bet Zogby’s group would meet him too.
— Steve Clemons