Daily Star, Lebanon - June 1, 2004
Kerry's support for Israel repels Arab voters
By Ashraf Fahim
NEW YORK: The battle for the hearts and minds of Arab-American voters has taken a decidedly negative turn for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry.
A raft of statements by Kerry lauding President George W. Bush's unequivocal support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has alienated some in a community that, though relatively small, is strategically situated in certain states expected to be closely contested in the November election.
Kerry has recently endorsed Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan as well as Bush's April 14 commitment to Sharon, acquiescing to Israel's retention of large West Bank settlements, and the denial of Palestinian refugees' right of return. Previously, Kerry has expressed support for Israel's assassinations of Palestinian leaders, the construction of its separation barrier and the isolation of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
Kerry has only been too willing to criticize Bush for his "lack of engagement" in the peace process, and failure to dispatch a high-level mediator to the region, something the senator says he would do immediately upon assuming office.
While there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush administration among Arab-Americans on issues like Iraq and civil liberties, Kerry's support for Sharon is leading some to draw back from him for the time being.
The relatively small Arab-American community - estimated at 3.5 million - has gained prominence beyond its numbers due to its generally high voter turnout and preponderance in several "battleground" states - notably Michigan.
A majority of Arab-Americans voted for Bush in 2000, partly due to a perception that, like his father, he would be relatively evenhanded on the Arab-Israeli issue.
But, polls now give Kerry a double-digit lead over Bush, with a large number undecided or leaning toward independent candidate Ralph Nader, who many supported in 2000 and who is of Lebanese descent.
Judge William Shaheen, the head of the Kerry campaign in New Hampshire, is the senator's unofficial liaison with the Arab-American community and the husband of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry's national campaign chair. Judge Shaheen is adamant that a Kerry presidency would offer hope on Palestine. It would bring "a breath of fresh air" to the peace process Shaheen told The Daily Star.
Many Arab-Americans have faith that, although it is perhaps the lesser of two evils, a Kerry presidency offers some hope. "It's hard to get a president into office who's evenhanded on Palestine," says Philadelphia resident Ribhi Mustafa, "but the Democrats do tend to work a little bit harder for peace."
Kerry's recently expressed views have been a letdown to community leaders like James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute (AAI), who is in close contact with the Kerry campaign. At an AAI conference in October, Kerry had won plaudits for labeling Israel's separation barrier "provocative and counter-productive." But he has since called it a "legitimate act of self-defense."
Zogby says that Kerry's views on Israeli-Palestinian issues risk alienating those for whom that issue is paramount. "There is a significant portion of the community - about 30 percent - that is not convinced that there is a fundamental difference (between Bush and Kerry) on this issue," he says, "which is a critical issue that they care a great deal about, maybe to the exclusion of others."
A poll commissioned by the AAI in late April in four battleground states that have sizeable Arab-American populations - Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio - found that while Kerry leads Bush by 45 to 28 percent, the remainder intend to vote for Nader or are undecided.