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Time is now for Arab-Americans. Events favor them, but they lack lobbying clout

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 1988



Washington

For America's Arab population, now is the time to score points with the public and particularly with Congress. The three-month-old uprising of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied lands has awakened American concern for their struggle. Israel's usually good sense for public relations has gone awry, and the American Jewish community is in a state of confusion.

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Trouble is, the playing field isn't even. The Arab-American community can't come close to competing with American Jewry in fund raising, lobbying Congress, or influencing elections through political-action committees.

On money-raising, the issue is not just population size - 2.2 million Arab-Americans to 6 million American Jews; it's also a matter of tradition.

``Arabs are by nature very generous people, very warm and hospitable, but I don't think they are philanthropic by nature,'' says Ronnie Hammad, director of the Houston office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

``Here in the United States, it's been an educational process to make them understand the importance of contributing, that nothing happens in this country without money,'' Mr. Hammad adds.

By all appearances, the only registered lobbying group for Arab-American causes, the National Association of Arab Americans, is not a force in influencing Congress. The eight-year-old ADC, which has flourished into the largest Arab American organization with 18,000 members, would like to get into lobbying, but it doesn't have the money to hire good lobbyists, says director Abdeen Jabara.

Where the strategy of Arab leaders really lies is not in competing with the Jewish community in the current system, but in changing the system. The power of political-action committees is one target. At the ADC convention here last weekend, Arab-Americans were exhorted to lobby their congressmen to support a bill to lower the amounts of money PACs are allowed to contribute to congressional campaigns.

``It offers the first real chance to break the iron grip of the Israeli lobby over Congress,'' declares an ADC flier.

It is a well-known axiom in Congress that to speak out for Palestinian causes carries great risks, while not to speak out carries no risk. The situation will not change until it becomes politically necessary for legislators to speak out, Arab-American leaders say.

``Public opinion is not reflected in Congress,'' ADC director Jabara says.

``But nothing is going to change until they feel heat from their constituents.''

Building a constituency at the grass-roots level and teaching Arab-Americans how to exercise their democratic rights have been a key focus of community leaders for the past several years.

Four years ago, James Zogby left as head of the ADC and started the Arab American Institute, which coordinates local efforts to establish an Arab-American presence in the political parties.

For the current presidential campaign, Mr. Zogby's organization laid out a four-part plan to build that presence:

Make sure Arab-Americans are registered to vote.

Get Arab-Americans onto campaign staffs.

Train Arab-Americans in how to become delegates for party conventions.

Coach local Arab-American communities in making the most of their political clout.

Zogby is particularly excited about successes in lining up Arab-Americans to be delegates for the national conventions. In the 1984 campaign, six delegates were slated and four won. This time, 85 have been slated - most of them with Jesse Jackson.

Mr. Jackson has played a major role as a rallying point for Arab-Americans in this campaign. In an informal survey, conducted by the Arab American Institute, 80 percent of Arab-American political activists in 17 communities said they support Jackson.

Campaigning as the champion of the underclass, Jackson has been willing to speak out on issues the mainstream candidates have shied away from. And for many Arab-Americans, Jackson's consistent support for an independent Palestinian state has been music to their ears.

Zogby, who was a member of Jackson's national finance council in 1984 and remains active in this campaign, says Jackson also appeals to Arab-Americans' traditional moral values and their focus on the family.

``Jackson opened the door for us in American politics,'' he says.

Events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also appear to have opened doors. A week before his recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State George Shultz met for the first time with the Council of Presidents of Arab-American Organizations.

And as the uprising continues, the American political mainstream will find it increasingly difficult to ignore a newly emboldened Arab-American community. -30-{et