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Lieberman Heckled at Arab Forum

Democratic candidate is applauded for criticizing Bush but loudly booed for defending Israel.

October 18, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DEARBORN, Mich. — He stood before them speaking of solidarity, introducing himself with words from the Bible: "I am Joseph, your brother." But Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was pelted with jeers as he brought his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination to an Arab American leadership conference in this Detroit suburb on Friday.

"Go home to Tel Aviv," one woman called in disgust as Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, cast Israelis as victims of Palestinian terrorism.

"No! No! No!" others shouted as Lieberman defended Israel's right to build a wall around territory it claims for its citizens and settlers. Their anger all but drowned out the senator.

Both Democrats and Republicans recognize Arab Americans as pivotal voters in Michigan, where they make up an estimated 5% of the electorate. Arab Americans account for about 2% of voters in several other key states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

"It's important to come to this group and engage in honest dialogue," said Jano Cabrera, Lieberman's spokesman. He pronounced Lieberman's appearance a "successful visit" -- despite the hostility -- saying the senator showed he wouldn't pander, even to tough crowds.

Organizers at the Arab American Institute, a nonprofit activist group, had hoped to bring most of the Democratic candidates to the three-day leadership forum, dubbed "Vote 2004."

As it turned out, congressional votes on aid to Iraq kept several contenders in Washington. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio addressed the group by satellite link. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt flew in after the vote and spoke at the evening's banquet.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, at home recovering from laryngitis, enlisted a local supporter to read his speech. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was scheduled to appear today. That left Lieberman as the only candidate to speak before the group in person during the afternoon program.

It was not the first time he has reached out to the Arab American community. As the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, Lieberman made a point of meeting with Arab Americans on his first campaign trip.

Recognizing that gesture and others over the years, James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, introduced Lieberman on Friday as a friend of the community who had worked hard to give Arab Americans a voice in the Democratic Party. The audience at first seemed receptive. Lieberman won applause several times when he railed against the Bush administration, saying it had trampled on civil liberties after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But the crowd of several hundred grew angry when Lieberman turned his remarks to the Middle East.

When the moderator asked Lieberman about Israel's policy of bulldozing homes in Palestinian territory after suicide attacks, an Arab American in the audience shouted out: "Isn't that terrorism?"

"It's not terrorism," Lieberman responded, to a crescendo of boos. Instead, the senator called the Israeli actions "regrettable" and "heartbreaking."

"He makes me so mad," said Hanan Rasheed, a Palestinian activist from Danville, Calif. During Lieberman's speech, she derided him under her breath, at one point muttering: "He is such a Jew." Later, she said: "He's running for the wrong office. He should be running for the prime minister of Israel."

Lieberman sought to justify the wall that Israel is erecting around its declared security zone as a temporary measure, to be dismantled when Palestinian leaders prove they can stop suicide bomb attacks.

Again, the crowd interrupted with catcalls.

"The wall has to do with stealing resources from the Palestinians, with taking their land and water," shouted Greta Berlin, a Palestinian activist from Los Angeles who recently returned from two months in the West Bank. Lieberman, unrattled, waited until she was finished, then repeated his promise to vigorously push the region toward peace if elected.

It seemed doubtful he won many over.

"Lieberman? I hated him," said Tawfiq Barqawi, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Greater Philadelphia.

"He is a very decent man, a respectful man," countered Azzam Elder, a local attorney. "He came out sincere and trying to be honest. But there are some points he's just lacking on. He should have been able to stand up and say that wall is bad news."

"I wasn't surprised at his position, because he's a professed pro-Zionist," said Brian Mosallam, a financial advisor in Dearborn. Mosallam wasn't surprised either at the crowd's reaction: "The Middle East, the wall, settlements -- these are very emotional issues."

Before the conference started, Arab American leaders took pains to emphasize that they were not one-issue voters, concerned solely with the Palestinian cause.

They cited sharp concerns about Bush administration policies on civil liberties, Iraqi reconstruction and the war on terrorism.

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