WASHINGTON: Arab-Americans are enjoying their moment in the sun. Courted by presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore in what is proving to be one of the closest races for the White House in decades, the 540,000 registered voters of Arab origin here are finding out what it means to have political clout.
“For the first time our votes are important,” said Abed Hammoud, president of the Arab-American Political Action Committee and an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan.
Hammoud admits, however, that the key words are “tight race.”
“We probably wouldn’t have heard from either of the candidates otherwise,” he said.
American presidential elections are run on an electoral system that awards individual states a designated number of “electoral votes.” This means that the candidate with the highest number of individual votes in any given state is awarded all the electoral votes allocated to that state.
A candidate must gain a minimum of 270 electoral votes to win the election. In a very close race where the difference in the number of individual votes gained by candidates is very small, it is possible that the candidate who gets the largest portion of the popular vote will lose the election because he has gained fewer electoral votes than his rival.
With only a few days to go before the presidential election on Nov. 7, Michigan continues to be a swing state with 18 electoral votes and a large number of undecided voters. The state is home to some 320,000 Americans of Arab origin, half of whom are registered voters.
Hammoud, who describes himself as a “committed Democrat,” says that the outcome in Michigan is so crucial that the state “could decide the vote nationwide.”
Democratic candidate Al Gore clearly agrees with that assessment. During a campaign stop in Michigan on Oct. 29, the vice-president told a group of supporters that Michigan “may well turn out
to be the key state.”
Gore, who is a long-time supporter of Israel and is anxious to reverse pro-Bush sentiment among Arab-Americans, held a 45-minute meeting with 30 Arab community leaders during which he said that if elected he would be “even-handed” in his approach to American policy in the Middle East.
As one of those who attended the meeting with the vice-president, Hammoud said Gore did not make any “spectacular” statements in support of Arab-Americans but seemed well informed about the issues that concern the community.
Gore insisted he had so far “refused to support the moving of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” a statement that puts him in clear contradiction with the Democrats platform recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.
On the domestic front, Gore told Arab-Americans he would fight to ban a law that is referred to as “secret evidence” and which has, since 1996, allowed authorities to detain some 24 Americans of Arab origin without charge.
But Hammoud argues that the Democratic candidate’s last-minute attempt to attract voters of Arab origin who make up approximately 4 percent of voters in this country is unlikely to succeed. A number of Arab-American organizations including Hammoud’s own APAC have already officially endorsed Bush’s candidature.
Many independent voters of Arab origin, Hammoud adds, are likely to opt for the Green Party’s Ralph Nader, a Lebanese-American consumer advocate whose growing popularity among liberals who are disenchanted with the Democrats has alarmed Gore supporters.
According to Khalil Jahshan, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, the majority of Arab-Americans born here and others who are new immigrants are Republican supporters.
“The political affiliation of 60 percent of Arab-Americans tends to be based on the fact that many of them are self-employed and successful businesspeople who support the Republican platform of fewer taxes and less government interference,” he explained.
Jahshan believes that while there are many domestic issues that concern Arab-Americans, “this year, Arab identity will play a more important role when it comes to deciding who to vote for” because of continued Israeli aggression against Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and Gaza.
While differences between Gore and Bush in Middle East policy are “fuzzy” at best, Gore’s unwavering support for Israel over the past eight years and his unwillingness to make public statements in support of the Arab-American community will turn most Arab-American voters against him on election day.
“Gore looks at things from a purely Israeli perspective,” Jahshan said. “Arabs simply don’t register on his radar screen.”
Some younger Arab-Americans like many other Americans are discontented with the Republican and Democratic parties because they believe politicians do not address the day-to-day issues that affect the lives of ordinary people.
While many of them will not vote at all, a sizeable minority an estimated 3 to 4 percent of voters will register their dissatisfaction by voting for Nader, a well-respected “voice of the people” who has fought for the past 35 years to lessen the power of big business and for greater responsibility in government.
Ameen David, a Lebanese-American who was born and brought up in Washington, says he will vote for Nader because “if he gets enough votes to get a third party started, he will break the other two parties’ monopoly and force them to recognize the true issues.”
David believes it has been “too easy” for Republicans and Democrats to “play opposite sides” on issues that have little to do with the daily lives of the American people. Whether it is in his position in support of the environment or his continued stand for human rights, Nader, argues David, is the only alternative.
And when it comes to foreign policy, “Nader is definitely the best choice we’ve ever had vis-a-vis American foreign policy in the Middle East.”
David, a 30-year-old who works as a restaurant manager with a large hotel chain, says both the Republicans and Democrats have historically been “blindly supportive of the Zionist mentality, with no regard to international law and justice,” making them undesirable to Arab-Americans regardless of any differences they might have on domestic issues.
“During the recent events in the Middle East, Nader has made public statements saying he would not support Israel if it continues its aggression against the Palestinians,” said David, adding that neither Gore nor Bush have condemned the Israelis for using military force and killing more than 140 Palestinians.
For Mohammad Oweis, a Palestinian-born businessman who has lived in the US for 24 years, this election has created a political window of opportunity for Arab-Americans “in which we have to think about investing in our future.”
“As an Arab-American, I have to vote like other Americans and think about what’s in it for me,” said Oweis, who was brought up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain Hilweh and is an active supporter of Arab-American organizations that fight to end discrimination against members of the community here and to change American foreign policy in the Middle East.
He believes that while Bush and Gore offer voters different policies on domestic issues, when it comes to foreign policy, both candidates “will always support the other side.” Ralph Nader, on the other hand, comes with a “solid message” of equality and human rights.
“We’ve never bombed Tel Aviv. We’re the underdogs here and our platform is justice and peace. It’s a noble cause and neither of the candidates can argue with that,” Oweis said.
If Arab-Americans show a united front and give their votes to Nader, adds Oweis, they will raise the candidate’s share of the overall vote and become a political force to be reckoned with.
“Why are we always so willing to accept only the crumbs from American leaders?” he asks. “Let them come to us from now on.”