WASHINGTON – When President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry were looking for precious votes in 2004 battleground states, they courted a community long accustomed to being overlooked: Arab Americans.
But just two years later, the small but growing voter bloc appears to have slipped back into political obscurity as a new wave of violence in the Middle East galvanizes American support for Israel.
Despite recent calls from Arab American leaders for greater U.S. efforts to secure a cease-fire, the president and Congress have made clear that they do not intend to try to stop Israel from taking on its Hezbollah and Hamas foes.
And last week, the Senate and House overwhelmingly backed resolutions affirming support for Israel’s right to defend itself. Only 12 members of the House – several from districts in Michigan and northern Ohio with concentrations of Arab Americans – refused to back the strongly worded motions.
“This is so devastating,” said James Zogby, the longtime head of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute, who has argued that the current violence harms Israeli and Arab interests alike. “I thought we’d come further than this.”
Amid intolerance for terrorist groups, a strong lobbying campaign by Israel’s supporters and the looming congressional elections, the two parties have rushed to prove their loyalty to the longtime ally.
“U.S. support for Israel is at an all-time high,” said Jennifer Cannata, a spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbied extensively for last week’s congressional resolutions.
“I think both parties understand that standing behind Israel at this time is critical,” Cannata said.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the outpouring of support for Israel. When Israel endured missile attacks from Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, both houses of Congress unanimously passed resolutions of support. For years, Democrats and Republicans have courted Jewish voters by burnishing their pro-Israel credentials.
By contrast, the smaller and newer Arab American community, which the U.S. Census estimates at about 1.3 million, and which others contend is larger, has struggled to be recognized as a political force.
That seemed to be changing during the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, when strategists contended that a few thousand votes in Florida, Michigan and Ohio, which have substantial Arab American communities, might tip the contest.
Yet the events of the last two weeks have only reinforced how little influence Arab Americans have with U.S. leaders when their message contrasts with the position being advocated by Israel’s supporters in Washington, D.C.
Since fighting broke out two weeks ago, Zogby and other Arab Americans have been pushing for stepped-up U.S. efforts to restrain Israel and to broker a peace deal.
But when the Arab American Institute called a news conference at a Washington hotel Wednesday to urge an immediate cease-fire, the group’s members could attract only a handful of lawmakers to stand with them.
The scene on Capitol Hill last week was markedly different.
On Tuesday, the Senate without dissent passed its resolution supporting Israel, condemning Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran and urging Bush to “continue fully supporting Israel.” There was no mention of a cease-fire.
Sixty-one senators, including the leaders of both parties, co-sponsored the measure.
On Thursday, 410 House members voted in favor of a separate measure, which condemned Hamas and Hezbollah “for engaging in unprovoked and reprehensible armed attacks against Israel.”
Even Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is a Lebanese American, voted for the tough resolution.
The outpouring on Capitol Hill in large measure reflected popular sympathy nationwide for Israel, which has increased as the United States has intensified its own struggle with Middle East terrorists.
A Gallup Poll earlier this year put sympathy for Israel at its highest level since the 1991 gulf war, with 59 percent of respondents saying their sympathies were with the Israelis, compared with 15 percent with the Palestinians.
The strong congressional resolutions also reflected the ongoing battle between the two parties for the Jewish vote, which political observers say has intensified in recent years as Republicans have set their sights on a voting bloc that has been solidly Democratic for generations.
Loudly proclaiming their support for Israel, among other tactics, Republicans over the past four presidential elections have whittled the Democratic share of the Jewish electorate from 88 percent in 1992 to about 78 percent in 2004, according to exit polling data.