Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian issue Thursday with a delegation of leaders of the Arab-American and U.S. Muslim communities. Spokesmen for the group said a lack of balance by the Bush administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has done serious harm to the U.S. image in the Middle East.
The group of some 30 leaders of U.S. Arab and Muslim organizations spent about 90 minutes with Mr. Powell and other senior officials, and participants said they spoke "forcefully" about what they consider an imbalance favoring Israel in Bush administration Middle East diplomacy.
James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, said the administration's "failure" in recent months to speak out more clearly against excesses by the Israeli military in Gaza has done "grave damage" to the United States' image in the region.
He also criticized the U.S. embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from the Palestinians starting with an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, saying it is not the catalyst for reviving the international peace "road map" that some administration officials have portrayed it as.
"Removing settlements from Gaza in a year's hence, while wreaking havoc in Gaza right now isn't the way to create conditions for a stable Palestinian order," said Mr. Zogby. "Wanting to maintain, insisting in fact, on maintaining control and closure on the entire border between Gaza and Egypt literally locks the Palestinians into what amounts to a reservation or worse. Palestinians have no economy in Gaza and they will not have an economy unless they have access to the outside world."
Mr. Zogby said the Sharon plan aims to extricate Israel from Gaza while allowing continued construction of settlements and Israel's controversial security barrier in the West Bank. He said he believes Mr. Powell and his colleagues "got the message" about the level of concern among Arab-Americans, but said he is unsure how responsive the Bush administration will be in an election year.
Also speaking for the group was former Democratic Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, who took part in the meeting in her capacity as president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Ms. Oakar said most Arab-Americans supported President Bush in the 2000 election, but that there is no guarantee this will happen again this year. She said U.S. Arabs and Muslims will be a potentially-critical factor in the November election, given their concentration in the so-called "battleground" states of the Presidential race.
"We can make a difference in every battleground state," she said. "I'm from Ohio. That's where I've served proudly my constituents. And the truth of it is, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey: we have chapters, members, as Jim [Zogby] does all over the country and they are registering in large numbers to vote. And we're not going to tell them how to vote, but we are certainly going to encourage them to vote, because if they want a change in public policy in this country, whether it's about health care or the Middle East, they have to first and foremost vote and make their voices known through the ballot box."
Ms. Oakar said Secretary Powell assured his visitors that the hand over of sovereignty from the U.S. led coalition to the Iraqi interim government July 1 will be genuine and that the United States will "no longer be calling the shots" in Baghdad.