Confronting the Challenges We Face

James Zogby’s Column

Some pro-Israel groups and their erstwhile friends in the neo-conservative movement are not satisfied with the destruction of the Middle East peace process.  They appear to be dedicated to carrying Ariel Sharon’s war of eradicating the fruits of Oslo home to the U.S.

Their objectives appear to be: aggravating U.S. ties with Arab countries; expanding the U.S. war on terror to Iraq while allowing Israel to act as a surrogate in destroying the Palestinian Authority; complementing Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian Authority with U.S. actions to cut ties with the Palestinian national movement; and isolating the political emergence of the Arab American and American Muslim communities.

The situation is fraught with danger and must be both understood and confronted.

Despite Arab cooperation with the U.S. effort to destroy al-Qaida, news stories and editorials continue to suggest the opposite to be the case.  Anti-Arab comments alleged to have been made this week by President Bush were clearly intended to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the Arab world.  The story of those comments first appeared in a major Israeli daily paper, Yediot Ahronoth, in a column by the respected journalist Nahum Barnea.  What Barnea reported was that, in a small White House gathering with seven top Jewish American leaders (preceding a larger White House event at which Bush commemorated the feast of Hanukkah), Bush was said to have made comments: supporting Sharon; criticizing Arafat and predicting his downfall; criticizing King Fahd of Saudi Arabia; and even criticizing the control that “Arabists” had over the State Department.

A top Bush advisor, who was present at the meeting, told me that the Barnea report was false, and White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer termed the report “garbage” and denied that the remarks were made.

What is important, however, is that someone in the group of seven did speak to an Israeli reporter and clearly intended to damage the U.S.-Arab relationship. 

The same can be said about the continuing drumbeats for war against Iraq.  A minor victory for sanity was won this week with the successful efforts to make a minor, though significant, change in one piece of anti-Iraq legislation expected to pass Congress.  The resolution called on Iraq to accept inspectors of its weapons program.  The initial draft of the bill noted that Iraq’s failure to do so would be an act of aggression against the U.S. and its allies, i.e., a declaration of war.  This has since been dropped.  But the anti-Iraq campaign continues.

What is especially worrisome is that the architects of this campaign have no plan beyond the campaign itself.  If there were a regional and coordinated strategy developed to change the regime and provide a better future for the people of Iraq, that would be one thing.  But the current effort does not envision regional cooperation, nor does it plan for success.  It’s goals are cloudy and its strategy even less clear.

While Sharon has declared that the Palestinian Authority and Arafat “no longer exist” and that he will no longer engage in discussions with them, some members of the U.S. Congress are similarly engaged in an effort to force a break with the Palestinian Authority and delegitimize its presence in the U.S.

Not satisfied with earlier congressional efforts to expand the U.S. terrorist list to include “Tanzim” and “Force 17”, some are now suggesting the addition of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to the list as a leader “whose regime harbors terrorists”.

In an ominous new development, there are signs that this campaign of all-out confrontation may be extending to Arab Americans and American Muslims.  For years now, several of the new American Muslim groups have been under attack.  There have been allegations that their leaders had links to Hamas and other Middle East groups.  And there have also been efforts to discredit these U.S. groups because of statements made by some of their leaders.

The recent decisions of the Bush Administration to shut down three different U.S. Muslim charities, alleging their links with Middle East terrorist groups, may be the beginning of a campaign that may endanger other U.S. Muslim political groups as well.  Several articles have appeared in a number of conservative and neo-conservative publications attempting to show these connections and seeking to discredit not only the groups involved, but also the U.S. political leaders who work with them.

More dangerous still is the effort to extend this campaign through guilt by association.  Note the recent effort to tarnish a leading Arab American Republican attorney, whose firm was providing some legal representation to one of the U.S. Muslim charities shut down recently by Presidential order. 

Immediately after the President’s decision was announced, the campaign began.  First, an article appeared criticizing the Bush Administration for working with and accepting advice from a lawyer who was representing the now-banned charity.  Because the Arab American attorney chaired an event which featured Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, the article also sought to drag the Secretary into the guilty web.

Next, it was discovered that the same Arab American had made a contribution to the Senate campaign of Congressman John Sununu (a Republican Arab American member of Congress who is currently challenging incumbent Senator Bob Smith).  Smith has been running a campaign straight out of the 1980’s.  He brought former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to New Hampshire to raise money for his campaign.  Smith has also suggested that Sununu’s Arab descent should be an issue in the campaign because he is not sufficiently pro-Israel in his voting record.  Now, Smith’s campaign has decided to extend its attack to the ethnicity of Sununu’s contributors.

What has been important here is that prominent American Jewish and major U.S. Jewish leaders have condemned Smith’s ploy.  But the danger remains.

It would, of course, be tragic if this current multi-pronged anti-Arab campaign were to succeed.  Not only Middle East peace, but the very architecture of regional cooperation and U.S.-Arab relations built up over the past several decades are at stake. 

To confront this challenge, a comprehensive strategy must be developed, and allies must be cultivated.  The approach must be pro-peace.  It must reach out to the peace movement in Israel and to allies and potential allies in the U.S.  It must define an agenda of achievable goals and fight only battles worth winning.

As a start, I still believe that it is important for the collective Arab voice to articulate a common vision of the future-a vision that articulates the benefits of a comprehensive peace so compelling that it can win support.  A vision that can stand in marked contrast to the dead end approach of Sharon and all of his extremist allies.

Arab Americans are fighting to defend their gains and their place in the U.S. political mainstream.  We are confident that our record of service and our strong relationships and the respect we have earned will serve us well in this effort.

But with regard to the broader issues of the Middle East-the struggle for peace and the enhancement of U.S.-Arab relations-it is incumbent upon the Arab world to project and define the vision of the future that can rally support and be defended in the face of contemporary challenges.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.