Arab Americans short of options in presidential election

Arab Americans short of options in presidential election

The Arab American vote could determine who wins the key states that will determine the outcome of the election (File/AFP)
The Arab American vote could determine who wins the key states that will determine the outcome of the election (File/AFP)
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Arab Americans do not often have the opportunity to flex their voting muscle and influence elections on a national level, but they will in the presidential election this November.

The difference in the number of votes for former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden in 2020 was extremely small in several swing states that just happen to have large Arab American populations. Biden defeated Trump in those states four years ago and now the incumbent needs to win them again. That gives Arab Americans clout, but this has been offset by rising antagonism against them over America’s prejudicial support of Israel over all of the Arab world’s interests.

Israel is an American political priority, mainly because its supporters have carefully cultivated sympathy in the mainstream news media, Hollywood movies, books and in politics.

Arabs have never come close to either competing with or challenging the pro-Israel dominance in the US. The country is even willing to compromise on its principles, laws and critical aspects of its constitution to silence and oppress Israel’s critics.

But this year, the Arab American vote has become vital to the result of the election. It could determine which candidate, Biden or Trump, wins the key states that will determine the outcome of the election.

The Arab American vote could determine who wins the key states that will determine the outcome of the election

Ray Hanania

Let us understand the political candidates they will be voting for, as well as the forces Arab Americans face.

First of all, supporters of Israel have far more influence in US politics than Arab Americans. It's not an issue of “control,” it is one of engagement. Pro-Israeli groups engage in politics more broadly and actively than Arabs, donating far more money and uniting behind a single cause — Israel.

On the other hand, many Arabs are wealthy but they are stingy with their money, especially when it comes to politics. Their children pursue careers in medicine, engineering and business, with only a few straying into journalism. This means their voice is weak. Meanwhile, many supporters of Israel have pursued careers in journalism and have been very successful. That is significant because, in America, the real power is founded in professional communications and the ability to manage perceptions.

The No. 1 priority for politicians is funding. For example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee donates hundreds of millions of dollars to candidates who support its policies on Israel. Ahead of the November election, all 224 AIPAC-backed candidates — 90 Democrats and 134 Republicans — won their primary races, beating “progressives” who spoke out for Palestinian rights. In contrast, there is no real Arab lobby, just small voices of influence.

While pro-Israeli organizations support both major parties, most Arab activists support the Democrats, naively believing the party is more supportive of their rights. Democrats might generally be more sympathetic to Palestinian rights issues than Republicans, for example, but most are not sympathetic enough to risk losing their reelection bid due to a challenge from AIPAC.

Arabs are at a disadvantage in US politics. So, why would candidates not pander to the pro-Israel vote?

In American politics, when it comes to the Middle East, the issue is who supports Israel the strongest

Ray Hanania

Let us also look at the candidates.

In American politics, when it comes to the Middle East, the issue is who supports Israel the strongest. Biden has always been a Zionist. He has declared it multiple times and that means he will forever side with Israel, even though he, like many Democrats, may have superficial differences with its leaders. Biden needs the Arab vote but he will always take it for granted.

The problem for Biden is, of course, that the pro-Israel lobby plays a significant role — being far more influential than Arab Americans — in Democratic politics and in defining the party’s policies. Its attitudes, which swing back and forth in the face of peace and violence, significantly influence Biden’s decisions.

The Hamas violence on Oct. 7 has galvanized even the most fair-minded mainstream American supporters of Israel to refrain from speaking out against Israel’s subsequent Gaza carnage.

Trump does not have a political background. Instead, he comes from a celebrity world, where several of his closest friends were Arab and even Palestinian. The most notable was Farouk Shami. Shami was on his reality show “The Celebrity Apprentice” more than once. Years ago, Shami told me that Trump understood the challenges facing Palestinians.

Trump’s understanding of the Palestinian cause could have made a difference during his first term as president, but the Arab community, which aligned itself with the Democratic Party, opposed everything he did, forcing him deeper into Israel’s pocket.

Trump pandered to the pro-Israel lobby to get elected because the Arab vote was so weak, disorganized and ineffective on a national level. And he won. Biden won in 2020 not because the Arabs supported him but because Trump’s policies were divisive and petty and often unaccomplished.

Third-party candidates are an option, but not in terms of winning. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has shifted to the right when it comes to the Middle East, recognizing that the issue of Gaza is a political contest that cannot be won. So, he has been outspokenly pro-Israel. The fact that his father, Robert F. Kennedy, was murdered in 1968 by a crazed Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, is not a factor. Several years ago, his brother Chris Kennedy told me that the family never stereotyped the Palestinian people.

Dr. Jill Stein, another third-party candidate, is Jewish and is both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. She is able to do what many Palestinians and Israelis seem incapable of doing: distinguishing between the Israeli government’s policies and Israel, and between Hamas violence and Palestinian rights.

The political tables have turned, however, and now Biden is desperate for votes, especially in those swing states where he narrowly defeated Trump in 2020, such as Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Georgia and Minnesota.

Many Arab Americans have rallied behind two movements: “#AbandonBiden” and “Arabs for Trump.” They have rejected any outreach from Biden’s emissaries to give the president a second chance.

Although this may result in Trump’s reelection and some short-term concerns for Arab Americans, they will have a chance to lobby him and not refuse to meet with him, as they have done in the past. But Arabs can be emotional, so one never knows.

  • Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at X: @RayHanania
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