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Arab-Americans Seek More Political Clout in Washington - 2002-05-14

Arab-Americans are seeking to boost their influence in Congress at a time when support for Israel appears to be on the rise among U.S. lawmakers. A group of Arab-Americans gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss how to increase their clout.

The meeting came less than two weeks after the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed non-binding resolutions expressing support for Israel's military campaign in the Palestinian territories and condemnation for the Palestinians following a series of suicide bombings.

Support for Israel has always been strong on Capitol Hill because of influential Jewish lobbying groups and that nation's strategic importance as a pro-western democracy in a largely Arab region. But lawmakers in both parties say the September 11 attack in the United States and the wave of suicide bombings in Israel have created an even stronger bond between the two countries.

Arab-Americans are now seeking to level the playing field in the effort to lobby Congress.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California - one of six Arab-American members of the House - said the Arab-American community has much to learn. "This community, God bless you all, does not have the political clout, and has not earned the political clout through their efforts for 50 years, the way the American-Jewish community has," he said.

Congressman Issa said Arab-Americans should be doing more to promote a Saudi peace plan endorsed at an Arab League meeting in Beiirut earlier this year.

He called on Arab-Americans to get their message published in newspapers through opinion pieces and letters to the editor, and he urged them to vote in every election.

Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a state with a large Arab-American population, agreed. "We need your voice," she said. "We need you to help create the balance and the understanding from your perspective."

James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute, says Arab Americans are gradually making their voices heard. "We are new to this game," he said. "We are learning it, and frankly we are learning it slowly, but we are learning it okay."

Congressman Issa said the Arab-American community can do only so much toward winning the public relations battle.

Mr. Issa, who was sharply criticized by some Arab-Americans for his vote in favor of the House resolution supporting Israel, called on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to do more stop suicide bombings.

"Yasser Arafat has to put 100 percent effort, even if it costs him his life, into stopping the violence," said the congressman. "Because only when we stop the violence can the world and the American public be sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. There is a problem defending the Palestinians while 15-year-olds blow themselves up. We cannot win the [public relations] debate."

The effort to boost Arab-American political influence comes as new public opinion polls show a majority of Americans favor an even-handed approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes was organized by Steven Kull, who also spoke to the Arab-American gathering on Capitol Hill:

"Two-thirds or more say they do not think the United States should take either side in the conflict. Fifty-eight percent said they thought the United States does take Israel's side, and only 22 percent said they thought the United States was not taking either side," said Mr. Kull.

Among the 800 respondents, 58 percent said both Israelis and Palestinians are equally to blame for the failure to achieve peace. Seven percent said responsibility lies with the Israelis, while 29 percent said the blame lies with the Palestinians.

While 36 percent expressed greater sympathy with Israel versus 11 percent for the Palestinians, more than half, 53 percent, said they sympathized with the parties equally.