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In Politicians' Pro-Israel Din, Arab Americans Go Unheard

July 23, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry were looking for precious votes in 2004 battleground states, they courted a community long accustomed to being overlooked: Arab Americans.

But just two years later, the small but growing voter bloc appears to have slipped back into political obscurity as a new wave of violence in the Middle East galvanizes American officials' support for Israel.

Despite recent calls from Arab American leaders for greater U.S. efforts to secure a cease-fire, the president and Congress have made it clear that they do not intend to try to stop Israel from taking on its Hezbollah and Hamas foes.

And last week, the Senate and House overwhelmingly backed resolutions affirming support for Israel's right to defend itself. Only 12 members of the House -- several from districts in Michigan and northern Ohio with concentrations of Arab Americans -- voted against the strongly worded motions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Arab American influence: An article in Sunday's Section A about Middle East violence politically overshadowing Arab Americans said that 12 House members, including Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), had voted against a resolution that condemned Hamas and Hezbollah and supported Israel's right to defend itself. In fact, eight representatives voted against the resolution and four, including Lee and Waters, voted "present."

"This is so devastating," said James Zogby, the longtime head of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, who has said the violence harms Israeli and Arab interests alike. "I thought we'd come further than this."

Amid potent anti-terrorism sentiment, strong lobbying by Israel's supporters and the approaching congressional elections, Republicans and Democrats have rushed to prove their loyalty to the longtime ally.

"U.S. support for Israel is at an all-time high," said spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbied extensively for last week's congressional resolutions.

"I think both parties understand that standing behind Israel at this time is critical," Cannata said.

There is nothing groundbreaking about the outpouring of support. When Israel endured missile attacks from Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Congress unanimously passed resolutions of support. For years, Democrats and Republicans have burnished their pro-Israel credentials to court Jewish voters. About 6.2 million Americans are Jews, the Census Bureau says.

By contrast, the newer Arab American community, which the Census Bureau estimates at 1.3 million but others contend is larger, has struggled to be recognized as a political force.

That seemed to be changing during the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, when strategists contended that a few thousand votes in Florida, Michigan and Ohio, which have substantial Arab American communities, might tip the contest.

In Florida, for example, the Kerry campaign tried two years ago to capitalize on hostility among many Arab Americans to Bush's law-enforcement tactics, sending an e-mail to those voters promising changes to the Patriot Act and an end to "racial profiling." (Though California has the nation's largest Arab American population, its community has been deemed less crucial to candidates because the state has not been competitive in recent presidential elections, in which it has overwhelmingly voted for Democrats.)

Yet the events of the last two weeks have illustrated how comparatively little influence Arab Americans have with U.S. leaders.

Since fighting broke out, Zogby and other Arab Americans have been pushing for stepped-up U.S. efforts to restrain Israel and to broker a peace deal. But when the Arab American Institute called a news conference at a Washington hotel Wednesday to urge an immediate cease-fire, it attracted few lawmakers to stand with them.

The Capitol Hill scene was markedly different.

On Tuesday, the Senate without dissent passed its resolution supporting Israel; condemning Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran; and urging Bush to "continue fully supporting Israel." There was no mention of a cease-fire. Sixty-one senators, including the leaders of both parties, co-sponsored the measure.

On Thursday, 410 House members voted for a separate measure condemning Hamas and Hezbollah "for engaging in unprovoked and reprehensible armed attacks against Israel."

The House measure also supported Israel's right to defend itself. The measure had been stripped of language calling for both sides to limit civilian casualties; some lawmakers felt that language might unjustly equate Israel's campaign of self-defense with terrorist tactics of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Then, after the vote, the two parties skirmished over who was more supportive of Israel, with Republicans claiming credit for the tougher language and Democrats accusing their rivals of stooping to politics on an important bipartisan issue.

Of the dozen representatives who voted against the measure, four represent districts with large Arab American communities around Detroit and Toledo, Ohio. A few antiwar Democrats also opposed it, including Barbara Lee of Oakland and Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.

One Republican voted against the measure. Ten members did not vote.

Among supporters of the tough resolution was Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who is a Lebanese American.

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