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Representatives of more than 30 leading Arab-American and Jewish-American organizations met in Washington, D.C., Oct. 25. Hosted jointly by the Arab-American Institute (AAI), a privately-funded research and policy center, and J Street, a pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby group, the leaders gathered to voice their support for President Barack Obama's efforts to broker peace in the Middle East.
Groups hold different views but both seek peace
Violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis are a familiar scene in the Middle East. There's been no such violence in the United States, yet Arab-American and Jewish-American communities have for decades treated each other with deep suspicion. But to judge from the Arab-American and Jewish-American leaders who gathered in Washington, things are changing.
Despite their divergent political views, speakers for both groups said they share the goal of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Arab-American leader says Congress should challenge pro-Israel group AIPAC
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James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, told VOA that he believes agreement should embolden the U.S. Congress to challenge the view often advanced by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC which is a powerful pro-Israel lobby group, that Israeli security interests are more important than Palestinian sovereignty.
"We believe that the interests of Israel have to be the same as the interests of the Palestinians," Zogby says. "That is, that there be a just and comprehensive solution that answers all of the key questions and resolves all of the important issues. So I think that what's happened is that AIPAC has been able to identify being pro-Israel with something that is really being anti-Israel. [Their success in this regard] is keeping Israel at war with its neighbors, and that's the message we bring," Zogby says.
When asked about Zogby's allegation, AIPAC officials would not respond directly, but issued a written statement saying their organization is unique in maintaining the U.S.-Israeli alliance. That alliance entails continued U.S. security and military aid to Israel totaling more than 2.7 billion dollars for fiscal year 2010. Critics say such support helps perpetuate Israel's military occupation of contested territories.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, Executive Director of J-Street, contends that continuation of that long-running Israeli occupation, and the anger and conflict it stirs throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world, undermines American interests.
"What we are about is creating a constituency for peace and security, and that is our number one agenda," Ben-Ami says. "We want Congress to know that there is a solid and strong base of support in the Jewish community and in the broader American public for that agenda and that what is what we are about."
Changing hearts and minds in the U.S.
The weekend discussions between Arab-American and Jewish-American leaders of President Obama's pro-peace agenda in the Middle East were joined, notably, by the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Christina Tchen. She told the groups that Arab-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Muslim-Americans all need to cooperate in building U.S. support for Mideast peace efforts. "We need to not only change hearts and minds in the Middle East," said Tchen, "but there are hearts and minds to be changed here in the United States as well."
Tchen says President Obama needs a constituency of Americans who care about peace to help him achieve the goal of a two-state solution.
Arab-American Congressman Nick Rahhal of West Virginia supports the U.S. Arab and Jewish groups' joint effort, which he said is in keeping with President Obama's call for creative new paths to a Middle East peace. "The purpose of the J Street-AAI conference is to think outside of the box and reach different avenues in which we pursue the goal that is important to all," Rahhal says. "It is in Israel's best interest to have peace in the region. It is in Palestinians' and Arabs' best interest to have peace in the region. And it is in the best interests of all countries around the world and all people around the world, especially for our children and grandchildren and generations to come," he adds.
Congressman Rahhal is optimistic that American public support for that goal will eventually result in President Obama being able to host the signing of a final Middle East peace agreement on the White House lawn, just as President Clinton did with a famous Oslo Agreement hand-shake in 1993.
A children's march for peace
The new cooperation between Arab-Americans and Jewish-Americans is getting a boost from grassroots efforts. Richard Goodwin is the founder of the Middle East Peace Dialogue Network, which has helped 25 thousand Arab and Jewish children meet and share their experiences.
"We started a children's march for peace," he says, "bringing together Jewish and Arab children who would not otherwise meet because the schools in Israel are segregated."
Whether along the shores of the Potomac or the banks of the River Jordan, citizen actions like these are helping to bridge the divide between Arabs and Jews, and fostering new dialogues in the quest for a more peaceful future for the Middle East.