Arab-Americans say U.S. should remain neutral in volatile Palestinian-Israeli fight

Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2002

WASHINGTON -- For years, James Zogby couldn't get some U.S. politicians to even meet with him. Some refused donations, others endorsements. Over time Zogby made headway, gaining political influence for Arab-Americans and the causes they care about.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States by Islamic extremists from Arab countries, and a backlash. After that, it was Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli military reprisals and a renewed and deadly conflict in the Middle East.

Now, as both sides' efforts to gain public support in the Mideast conflict reach a fever pitch, Arab-Americans are once again trying to ensure their opinions are heard by the lawmakers who represent them.

This week, Zogby's Arab American Institute brought about 200 people from 22 states across the country to lobby their congressmen on Capitol Hill. They met with 45 members of Congress, he estimated Tuesday, with a message that the United States should remain a neutral broker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

''It's informing these members (of Congress) that they've got people in their districts -- who they may not have even known about -- who care about fairness on this issue, who want them to treat Palestinians like the humans they are,'' Zogby said.

Yet the effort was a far cry from the tens of thousands who gathered in mid-April at the steps of the Capitol in what organizers called the biggest pro-Israel rally ever in the United States.

That gathering drew big-name supporters like New York Gov. George Pataki, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. It was accompanied by a widespread lobbying and advertising campaign by American Jewish groups.

Three weeks later, Congress overwhelmingly passed resolutions of support for Israel, blessing its military offensive as an effort to dismantle the Palestinians' ''terrorist infrastructure'' and equating Israel's fight with the U.S. war on terrorism. The House vote was 352-21; the Senate vote 94-2.

Zogby is philosophical about such overwhelming condemnation of the Palestinian cause by Congress.

''When we do focus groups, Americans say, 'I know who the Israelis are, I don't know who Palestinians are,''' Zogby said. ''And they sympathize and identify with the one they know.''

But Zogby contends Ameri-cans do support a Palestinian state, and they support President Bush's efforts to work with both the Palestinians and Israelis -- and moderate Arab nations -- to try to end violence and reach a land-for-peace deal.

''More than anything, they really want the country and the president to be balanced,'' Zogby said of Americans.

Indeed, nearly 70 percent of Americans say they want Bush to not take sides in the Palestinian-Israeli fight, according to a joint poll this month by CNN, USA Today and Gallup that echoed many past polls. A majority in another poll, however, thought the country was siding with Israel.

Many supporters of Israel have expressed fears in recent weeks that, despite the overwhelming vote in Congress, American support for Israel could flag unless strong pro-Israeli lobbying efforts continue.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who heads one campaign that includes television ads, warns that Israel's very survival could be endangered if American support lags.

Mizrahi and others note the Palestinian cause also gets a boost from a multimillion-dollar Saudi ad campaign to both improve its image and support the Saudi peace initiative in the Mideast.

Zogby said his group and others still must fight accusations that because they support Palestinians politically, they must be anti-Israel or soft on terrorism.

''We try to say we're lobbying for peace,'' he said.

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