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Arab-Americans seek more clout over US policy

Its numbers growing, the Arab community hopes to sway Mideast foreign policy - but still has far to go.

In a white dress shirt and suit pants, Sherif Mohamed stands silently among a crowd of several thousand chanting protesters in the heart of Manhattan, holding up a hand-lettered sign that reads: "Palestinians are also God's people."

A recent immigrant from Egypt, he wants to be sure that America's Muslim community, its anger and pleas for peace, are heard.

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But amid the waving Palestinian flags, mock coffins, and mothers in chadors pushing their toddlers, there's not a US politician to be seen.

"This is the usual way," says Mr. Mohamed with a dismissive wave of his hand. "They're all on Israel's side."

As the tensions in the Middle East spill onto America's Main Street, Arab Americans are struggling for the kind of political recognition and clout that could put a different stamp on US Middle East relations.

Protests like the ones held in New York over the past week were unheard of a decade ago, but are now springing up around the country. The Arab-American lobby in Washington has become more organized, expert in Washington's money game, and vocal.

Over the weekend, Vice President Al Gore found himself in trouble with the Arab community in Michigan, a key swing state, because he hadn't given equal weight to the Palestinian losses. He quickly tried to make amends.

But despite their fast-growing numbers - Muslims, who tend to be sympathetic to Arab causes, are expected to outnumber Jews in America in a few years - their political clout remains limited.

"There's no question that the pro-Israel community is plugged in and has resources that its critics don't have," says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. "The Muslim/Arab influence now is more latent than actual, but I think it's evolving and will grow to be more powerful."

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But for now, Mohamed is frustrated. On the previous day, when more than 10,000 protesters came to the same spot in support of Israel, almost every major politician in New York turned out - from Gov. George Pataki to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to US Senate candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio. The tone was clear.

"It's time the world recognize that it's Arafat and the PLO that are the real impediments to peace," said Governor Pataki, as the crowd cheered.

The United States's special relationship with Israel goes back to the new country's founding after World War II. It is based in part on a sense of obligation following the Holocaust. But Israel is also a fellow democracy with a common religious background, and was a strategic ally during the cold war.

And like the United States, it was initially settled by Europeans. Add to that, a vocal, organized, and powerful Jewish-American voting bloc, and it's not surprising that protecting Israel's security is a top US foreign-policy priority.

But some experts caution that beneath much of the political rhetoric surrounding the Middle East and the current crisis, there is broad recognition in the foreign policy community that the Israelis' and the Palestinians' future are inexorably tied.

"The underlying structure of American foreign policy is not what politicians say publicly to constituencies just before an election," says Anthony Cordesman, co-director of the Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It is the actions taken by American diplomats and the United States overseas that one must look to."

And right now, those diplomats are working diligently to bring both sides back to the bargaining table to bring an end to the unrest. But Mr. Cordesman believes the violence has set back attitudes on both sides at least six years, igniting old distrust and angers.

You see and hear that on the streets in New York. Protesters chanted, "Long live Palestine - Down, Down Israel" as they waved posters that equated Zionism with Nazism. While such displays of anger may get news coverage, many experts believe that the most profound way for Arab- and Jewish-Americans to influence the peace process in the Middle East is to cooperate here.

"Look at how well Jewish- and Arab-Americans worked together in supporting efforts to resolve the crisis in Bosnia," says Middle East expert Dov Zakheim. "That sets a tone that is noticed in the Middle East."

But for now, many experts believe that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's success in bringing the violence under control will be what sets the tone in the Middle East and here in the US. "If he doesn't, US foreign policy may become more sympathetic to Israel, but the basic parameters aren't going to change despite the horrific tragedy," says Gail Pressberg, policy consultant to Americans for Peace Now in Waltham, Mass.

Such assessments worry Mohamed, who is convinced it is the Israelis' overreaction that is to blame for the violence. He knows he's a minority, but that's not going to stop him.

"We have to be more vocal, we have to do something for ourselves here and our people," he says, turning back to the protest. "It's the only way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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