Political observers say the situation in post-war Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will play an important role in next year's U.S. presidential election. Some prominent commentators and newsmakers met in Washington to discuss the political impact of events in the Middle East and the possible reaction of Jewish and Arab-American voters to them.
The discussion, organized by the Washington-based Middle East Institute, was held amidst growing pessimism about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Former Undersecretary of Defense Frank Gaffney says Israel continues to face a grave threat from Palestinian terrorist groups that are committed to its destruction. That, he said, ought to be a factor in the Middle Eastern policies of whoever is elected president next year.
"Especially as we are told endlessly that if only we make Israel make territorial concessions to its Palestinian Arab neighbors, it will end the problem," he said. "It will not end the problem between Israel and the Palestinians, let alone transform this region into the sort of peaceful arena we hope it would be."
M.J. Rosenberg of the Washington-based Israel Policy Forum, took a different view. He said, for instance, that most American Jews have historically voted for Democrats, whom they have seen as friendlier to Israel, and will do so again next year.
But he added President Bush can make gains, if he puts equal pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians, and pushes more strongly for a global settlement of the conflict.
"It is not supporting Israel for the United States to stand back and allow this awful situation to continue," he said. "Israel's economy has gone down the tubes. There is no tourism. Nobody goes any more. So, I know that if President Bush gets out there and does what he should do, which is to become diplomatically engaged and to help lead Israelis and Palestinians to peace, he will gain infinitely more votes than he will lose and he will not just gain votes among non-Jews, he will gain among Jews. We are desperate."
James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute said U.S. politicians are becoming aware of the growing weight of Arab-American voters, especially in heavily populated eastern and Midwestern states. He added that the presidential candidates will have to take their concerns into consideration.
"We have now become a factor," he said. "There are 3.5 million-plus Arab-Americans. We settled in what are known as battleground states. We are a large voting block in Michigan, but also in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Who would have thought that they would play the role that they do? But that is where our votes count."
According to Mr. Zogby, the Arab-American community is about equally split between supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties. But he also said Arab-Americans sometimes give a lot of votes to third-party candidates, like Ralph Nader three-years ago, if they perceive the established parties as having no strong commitment to peace in the Middle East.
Speaking about Iraq, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a prominent critic of the U.S.-led war, pointed out that the United States needs more international support to help stabilize the Middle Eastern country.
"The election of 2004 may well ride on the success of our operations in the Middle East," he said. "Certainly, if they fail, I think the administration is vulnerable. I do not want my president to fail in this. In order for him to succeed, we do need international support. We do need to remain faithful to the vision."
Mr. Wilson called for continued overall U.S. control of the administration of Iraq, but with the active help of as many foreign governments as possible.