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Some Arab American Leaders Question Lieberman's Neutrality on Middle East

Politics: Democratic candidate had vowed he would be evenhanded on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But his criticism of Arafat's role raises concerns.


WAUSAU, Wis. — Soon after his selection as Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman met with several dozen Arab American leaders in Michigan who worried that, if elected vice president, the orthodox Jew would not be evenhanded on Middle Eastern policy.

At the time, Lieberman earned guarded praise by listening to their concerns and reassuring them that he understands their agenda and has a record of fighting for the civil rights of Arab Americans.

But after violence exploded in the Middle East, Lieberman was the first national candidate to sharply criticize Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for not reining in the Palestinian protesters.

Lieberman's strong language upset Arab American leaders, who now say they fear that the Connecticut senator's presence in a U.S. administration would cripple the country's credibility as a mediator in the Middle Eastern conflict.

"If you want to be an honest broker, you have to be neutral in your positions so you can gain the trust of both sides in the negotiations," said Ahmad Chebbani, chairman of the Michigan-based American Arab Chamber of Commerce. "When the U.S. administration takes a biased position, as Joe Lieberman has against the Palestinians, that creates a mistrust on behalf of the Palestinian people."

Both of the presidential nominees--Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush--also called on Arafat to publicly order an end to the violence. But Lieberman used the sharpest language in referring to the Palestinian leader's role.

Blame Put on Arafat's Shoulders

Lieberman's impromptu remarks at a Los Angeles fund-raiser Oct. 11 praised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for his commitment to peace and placed the responsibility for stopping the bloodshed squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinian Authority leader.

"The tragedy here, with all respect, is that Chairman Arafat particularly has not seized this moment of opportunity to reach across the table and meet Barak to create the kind of understanding that is clearly in the best interests of all the people in the region," Lieberman told a largely Jewish crowd at a Century City hotel.

At the American Muslim Council, a 10-year-old lobbying effort geared toward strengthening Muslim participation in the political process, there was a sense that Lieberman had betrayed them.

"I wish that Sen. Lieberman would have commented as strongly as we expect him, a man of faith, about the burning of some Palestinians and the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian youth by the powerful Israeli military," said Aly Abuzaakouk, the council's executive director. "While I do not condone [the killing of two Israeli soldiers] in Ramallah, I call upon our public officials and media to not put the blame on the victims."

In the past, Lieberman has insisted that his Jewish faith would not obstruct his ability to deal fairly with the Middle East. He said his commitment is always to the Constitution and the interests of the United States.

Lieberman Remarks Defended

On Wednesday, Kiki McLean, Lieberman's press secretary, said his comments were made at the peak of the violence and that he remains dedicated to listening to both sides.

"His commitment will always be to peace and to having an open line in both communities to making sure, as he's said before, that the United States can continue to be an honest broker," McLean said. "He's spoken at great lengths to the tragedy for both communities, for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, the tragic loss of life over this."

Since his Oct. 11 remarks, Lieberman has spoken more generally about the Middle East. He has acknowledged that both leaders must fight for peace but he has also continued to press Arafat specifically.

James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, said that while Lieberman first took a "balanced" approach to the Middle East conflict, his recent criticism "drifted over to the conventional wisdom" that Arafat was to blame for the recent clashes.

In Michigan, a battleground state where Arab Americans make up about 4% of the population--the largest concentration in the country--a group of influential Arab American political and business leaders endorsed Bush for president this week.

Abed Hammoud, president of the Arab American Political Action Committee, said the majority of the 100-person group felt the Texas governor better understood their concerns about issues like racial profiling and secret evidence. Lieberman's faith and recent comments were not the main factor in their endorsement, said Hammoud, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention who voted to endorse Gore.

Elsewhere, Zouher Abdel-Hak, an Arab American political activist based in Dearborn, Mich., said he was upset to hear Lieberman's comments.

"He's supposed to be neutral and fair," he said. "There are lots of people in the Arabic community considering supporting Lieberman, but after this statement, I would never give him my vote. Definitely. That showed me he's not neutral."

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