Kerry repels Arab voters
- Kerry's support for Israel repels Arab voters
By Ashraf Fahim
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
NEW YORK: The battle for the hearts and minds of Arab-American voters
has taken a decidedly negative turn for presumptive Democratic
presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry.
A raft of statements by Kerry lauding President George W. Bush's
unequivocal support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has
alienated some in a community that, though relatively small, is
strategically situated in certain states expected to be closely
contested in the November election.
Kerry has recently endorsed Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan as well
as Bush's April 14 commitment to Sharon, acquiescing to Israel's
retention of large West Bank settlements, and the denial of
Palestinian refugees' right of return. Previously, Kerry has
expressed support for Israel's assassinations of Palestinian leaders,
the construction of its separation barrier and the isolation of
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
Kerry has only been too willing to criticize Bush for his "lack of
engagement" in the peace process, and failure to dispatch a high-
level mediator to the region, something the senator says he would do
immediately upon assuming office.
While there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush
administration among Arab-Americans on issues like Iraq and civil
liberties, Kerry's support for Sharon is leading some to draw back
from him for the time being.
New York resident Sarab al-Jijakli says that although most Arab-
Americans oppose Bush's policies, Kerry has not yet provided "clear
leadership" on Palestine or Iraq. "Why should Arabs vote for Kerry?"
he asks. "Just because he's not Bush?"
The relatively small Arab-American community - estimated at 3.5
million - has gained prominence beyond its numbers due to its
generally high voter turnout and preponderance in
several "battleground" states - notably Michigan.
A majority of Arab-Americans voted for Bush in 2000,
partly due to a perception that, like his father, he would be
relatively evenhanded on the Arab-Israeli issue.
But, polls now give Kerry a double-digit lead over Bush, with a large
number undecided or leaning toward independent candidate Ralph Nader,
who many supported in 2000 and who is of Lebanese descent.
Judge William Shaheen, the head of the Kerry campaign in New
Hampshire, is the senator's unofficial liaison with the Arab-American
community and the husband of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne
Shaheen, Kerry's national campaign chair. Judge Shaheen is adamant
that a Kerry presidency would offer hope on Palestine.
It would bring "a breath of fresh air" to the peace process Shaheen
told The Daily Star.
Shaheen maintains that Kerry's individual positions are less
important than his willingness to mediate. According to Shaheen, the
real problem is "that we have a president who's not engaged in the
"Can you imagine any worse scenario for the Arabs, for the
Palestinians, to do four more years of what we've just had?" he
asks. "I think the only chance they have is to support Kerry. And to
have faith that he wants to be a great president, and great
president's bring peace."
Many Arab-Americans have faith that, although it is perhaps the
lesser of two evils, a Kerry presidency offers some hope.
"It's hard to get a president into office who's evenhanded on
Palestine," says Philadelphia resident Ribhi Mustafa, "but the
Democrats do tend to work a little bit harder for peace."
Long-time observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict like Henry Siegman,
the director of the Council on Foreign Relations' US/Middle East
project, are skeptical of Kerry's approach.
Applauding the Bush administration's policies while simply offering
to send a high-level envoy is "meaningless," says Siegman, "because
emissaries mean nothing unless they are emissaries with a mandate to
implement a new policy."
Siegman underlines, however, that presidential hopefuls walk on
eggshells when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue for fear of
alienating the pro-Israel constituency. Therefore, he says: "One
cannot take seriously anything Kerry says about the Israeli-
Kerry's recently expressed views have been a letdown to community
leaders like James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute
(AAI), who is in close contact with the Kerry campaign. At an AAI
conference in October, Kerry had won plaudits for labeling Israel's
separation barrier "provocative and counter-productive." But he has
since called it a "legitimate act of self-defense."
Zogby says that Kerry's views on Israeli-Palestinian issues risk
alienating those for whom that issue is paramount. "There is a
significant portion of the community - about 30 percent - that is not
convinced that there is a fundamental difference (between Bush and
Kerry) on this issue," he says, "which is a critical issue that they
care a great deal about, maybe to the exclusion of others."
A poll commissioned by the AAI in late April in four battleground
states that have sizeable Arab-American populations - Florida,
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio - found that while Kerry leads Bush
by 45 to 28 percent, the remainder intend to vote for Nader or are
The number of Arab-American voters in those states - 510,000 - is
approximately equivalent to the combined margin of victory in all
four in 2000. Some 170,000 of those votes are still up for grabs,
says Zogby, and convincing undecided voters to support Kerry hinges
on his stance on Palestine.
Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, says the Kerry
campaign is simply deferring to Jewish supporters, who provide
significant funding for the Democratic party. And Jewish voters are
turning to Bush in unprecedented numbers because of his pro-Israel
policies, he says.
"There's no question that President Bush is going to get a bigger
percentage of the Jewish vote than Republicans normally get, and
maybe than a Republican has ever gotten," says Cook. Kerry's
campaigns are "just trying to cut their losses."
Still, Zogby has not given up hope that Kerry's position could evolve
to win over wavering Arab-Americans.
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