By E.J. Kessler

Published August 06, 2004, issue of August 06, 2004.
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BOSTON — As the campaigns of President Bush and Senator John Kerry try to outdo each other in outreach to the Jewish community, Arab American voters are feeling screwed to the wall.

While Arab Americans gave a strong plurality of their vote to George W. Bush in 2000, many now say they are repelled by his decision to launch the Iraq war and his support for the USA Patriot Act, as well as his perceived tilt toward Israel. Distress over the administration’s Middle East policy has led many Arabs to abandon their support of the president and to switch their allegiances to the Democratic ticket, a number of polls have found.

But the Arab American community also is feeling extremely frustrated by the strongly pro-Israel rhetoric of John Kerry’s presidential campaign, according to Arab American activists interviewed here last week during the Democratic National Convention or by telephone beforehand. As a result, they said, many voters could end up casting their ballots for independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, himself an Arab American, or staying home.

“You have to win Florida and New York, so you cater to the [community] that wins you Florida and New York,” said Ali Dagher, an Arab American lawyer from Dearborn, Mich., who attended the convention as part of a contingent of activists from the Arab American Institute, referring to the Jewish community. “But you also have to have a formula for winning Michigan and Ohio,” he added, referring to two states with large Arab American populations.

Bush “lied and made commitments and promises that never came true, and Republican Arab Americans are completely disillusioned with the Bush campaign,” Dagher said. “But at this point you can’t be certain people will vote for Kerry, either. Nader’s doing well. How do you get that vote? The Democratic ticket has to do something to give an incentive to go to the polls.”

The question is not academic for either party. Like Jewish voters, Arab Americans are concentrated in battleground states. Bush is believed to have won about 46% of the Arab American vote to Gore’s 38% in 2000 — and, in Florida, where the election was settled, Arab support may have put him over the top.

Pollster John Zogby, an Arab American who has been tracking the key states, estimates that Arab Americans represent more than 5% of the vote in Michigan, 2% in Florida, 1.8% in Ohio and 1.5% in Pennsylvania — for a total of about 1 million voters in those four major states. In his latest tracking poll of 500 Arab American voters, taken from July 9 to July 11, 24.5% of respondents chose Bush, 54% chose Kerry and 21.5% answered “other/not sure.”

Zogby foresees big gains for the Democratic ticket.

“There’s always a risk and fear of suppression and a good-size Nader vote,” Zogby told the Forward. “But John Kerry has fulfilled the main criterion Arab Americans are looking for: He’s not George Bush. There’s no doubt in my mind Kerry will get the lion’s share of their vote, and that Bush will get 25%.”

Some Democrats said, in effect, Arab American voters really have nowhere else to turn.

“Arab Americans for whom the relations between Israelis and Palestinians is the most important issue are going to be frustrated this cycle because neither camp is going to give them any light,” said Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz. “The rhetoric on both sides is going to be extremely pro-Israel. For the Kerry campaign, I wouldn’t want it any other way.” Rabinowitz said, however, that Democratic positions on civil rights and civil liberties, the economy, education and immigration should resonate deeply with Arab Americans, many of whom are recent immigrants. “They should feel naturally at home in the Democratic Party,” he said.

The Bush losses stem from the sense of betrayal among Arab Americans owing to actions the Justice Department has taken in pursuing the war on terror. In 2000, Bush, an oilman whose father had a cool-to-antagonistic relationship with pro-Israel activists, reached out to Arab and Muslim Americans by taking positions against the use of “secret evidence” in terror-related inquiries. In a debate with Al Gore, he said: “Arab Americans are racially profiled on what’s called secret evidence. People are stopped. And we got to do something about that.”

But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, federal agents have targeted Arab American communities for mass questionings, have held up visas and have rounded up Arabs for immigration violations in hopes of shaking out terrorists seeking shelter there. Secrecy and profiling are increasingly used in law enforcement, Arab Americans contend, in contradiction to Bush’s promise.

Nowhere is the sense of betrayal more evident than in hotly contested Michigan, the state with the country’s largest Arab American population. More than any other part of the country, Michigan, which went narrowly for Gore, has seen the brunt of the Justice Department’s actions since September 11. Still, feelings for Kerry remain cool.

“The pulse [in the Arab American community] is not in favor of President Bush, but it is also not a solid pulse for Mr. Kerry,” said Imad Hamad, the Midwest regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a communal defense group, said in a telephone interview. Hamad said both parties pursue a “one-sided” foreign policy, but the Democrats are gaining on other issues.

“We have no illusions,” he said. “Mr. Kerry is like President Bush if not worse in some aspects [of foreign policy], but on the domestic level he might be a better chance.”

Asked if the Bush-Cheney campaign had tried to reach out locally to his community, Hamad said: “Nothing of that exists.” The campaign’s Michigan communications director, Stephanie Cathcart, did not return a call seeking comment by press time.

Rep. Darryl Issa, a California Republican of Lebanese heritage who is involved in informal Middle East diplomatic efforts, acknowledges that Bush is a “tough sell” among Arab Americans, but he said he would be making the case that a second term is “the best chance for a peace legacy.”

“If we want to make real changes, we must admit that the countries there have problems,” Issa said. “If [Bush] is not completely right, at least he’s opening up the sore and trying to clean out the infection.” In terms of promoting human rights and respect for law and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said: “This president has stayed the course.”

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