Politics and Policy

Arab Americans, especially those who were leaning towards supporting John Kerry’s bid to become President of the United States, were deeply troubled by his running mate’s response to the question about the Arab-Israeli conflict in last week’s Vice Presidential debate.

At the end of the foreign policy segment of the debate, moderator Gwen Ifill asked John Edwards a leading question: "Today, a senior member of Islamic Jihad was killed in Gaza. There have been suicide bombings, targeted assassinations, mortar attacks, all of this continuing at a time when the United States seems absent in the peace-making process. What would your administration do? First of all, do you agree that the United States is absent? Maybe you don’t. But what would your administration do to try to resolve that conflict?"

Instead of directly taking on the Bush Administration’s neglect, Edwards delivered a "talking point" response designed to demonstrate maximum compassion for Israeli victims of terror, support for Ariel Sharon and Israel’s right to defend itself, contempt for Yasser Arafat, and the assurance that his Administration would do more to confront Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For his part, Vice President Cheney denied neglecting the peace process, pointing to the President’s still unimplemented "vision" of a two-state solution. The reason progress had not been made according to Cheney was, of course, Arafat. Additionally the Vice President provided, in his answer, a new justification for the war in Iraq stating that removing Saddam Hussein from power had reduced terror attacks against Israel by eliminating the leader who was rewarding the attackers.

From the hundreds of e-mails and messages I received in response to this exchange, several themes emerged.

Some Arab American Republicans indicated that while they had considered switching their vote based solely on the Bush Administration’s neglect of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they now no longer saw any reason to do so. Reactions of Arab American Democrats ranged from anger to a feeling of rejection. Said one, "I feel as though the wind had been taken out of my sails." They expected Cheney’s response, but simply could not understand why Edwards did not take advantage of the question to criticize the Bush Administration’s failures, express support for Israel and Israelis, and show at least some compassion for Palestinian suffering.

While Vice President Cheney was attempting to defend a failed policy, Edwards’ response was a studied one, that was political. Herein lies the problem.

When approaching the Arab-Israeli conflict, campaign operatives appear to base their political calculations on a zero-sum assessment. They have been schooled in the belief that anything short of 100% support for the hardest of hard-line pro-Israel positions will cost Jewish votes. The Kerry campaign appears to have become convinced that their Jewish American support base is at risk and that the Bush campaign may make inroads in winning substantial numbers of Jewish voters in key battleground states.

To offset this, the Kerry campaign has sought either to take the Middle East issue "off the table" by removing any difference between their stated positions and those of the Bush campaign (with regard to the wall, settlements, refugees, the Sharon plan, etc.) or to up the ante by appearing more hard-line than the Bush Administration on Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Even some Jewish leaders and analysts who wrote to me after the debate pointed to the folly of this assessment. Kerry, they observed, is known to be supportive of Israel and, therefore, will continue to win Jewish voters primarily because of his position on a whole range of important social issues. It would therefore cost him nothing, they argued, to express support for Palestinians and to acknowledge their needs. One mused, "in an unnecessary attempt to win Jewish voters that he was never going to lose, Edwards’ answer may have cost the campaign many more Arab American voters."

But does the Kerry campaign even consider Arab American voters? The answer is that they do. But they appear to be convinced that the issues of civil liberties and the war in Iraq are enough to win a substantial number of Arab American voters to their side even without consideration of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They may be right-but only to a degree.

Recent Arab American polls show Kerry still leading, but having earned less than 50% of the overall Arab American vote. With almost one in five Arab American voters still undecided, and with many supporters having had their enthusiasm dashed by Edwards’ comments, failure to pay attention to Arab Americans may come with a price on election day.

In many ways, it is the best and worst of times for Arab American voters. Their issues and concerns are central to this election and the community is being given significant recognition in the media and by local party leaders. But on the most difficult of issues in US politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the national campaigns have been unwilling to find a nuanced approach that reaches out to both Arab American and American Jewish voters. This does not bode well for this election and since politics is so decisive in shaping policy, it does not bode well for US Middle East policy either.