Arab-American leaders jeer Lieberman

Jewish senator defends Israel's actions in speech

October 18, 2003|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DEARBORN, Mich. - Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut was jeered as he took his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination to an Arab-American leadership conference in this Detroit suburb yesterday.

"Go home to Tel Aviv," one woman yelled as Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, cast Israelis as victims of Palestinian terrorism.

"No! No! No!" others shouted as he defended Israel's right to build a wall around territory it claims for citizens and settlers.

Both Democrats and Republicans recognize Arab Americans as pivotal voters to woo in Michigan, where they make up an estimated 5 percent of the electorate. Arab Americans account for about 2 percent of voters in several other key states.

"It's important to come to this group and engage in honest dialogue," said Jano Cabrera, Lieberman's spokesman. He pronounced Lieberman's appearance a "successful visit," saying the senator showed that he wouldn't pander to tough crowds.

Organizers at the Arab American Institute, a nonprofit activist group, had hoped to draw most of the Democratic presidential candidates to its three-day forum.

But congressional votes on aid to Iraq kept several contenders in Washington. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio addressed the group by satellite link. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri flew in after the vote and spoke at a forum banquet.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, at home recovering from laryngitis, enlisted a local supporter to read his speech. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was scheduled to appear today. That left Lieberman as the only candidate to speak before the group in person yesterday afternoon.

It was not the first time he has reached out to the Arab-American community. As the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, Lieberman made a point of meeting with Arab Americans on his first campaign trip.

Recognizing that gesture and others over the years, James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, introduced Lieberman yesterday as a friend of the community, who had worked hard to give Arab Americans a voice in the Democratic Party. The audience at first seemed receptive. Lieberman won applause several times when he railed against the Bush administration, saying it has trampled on civil liberties.

But the crowd of several hundred got angry when Lieberman turned his remarks to the Middle East.

When the moderator asked Lieberman about Israel's policy of bulldozing homes in Palestinian territory after suicide attacks, a member of the audience shouted: "Isn't that terrorism?"

"It's not terrorism," Lieberman said, to a crescendo of boos. Instead, the senator called Israel's actions "regrettable" and "heartbreaking."

"He makes me so mad," said Hanan Rasheed, a Palestinian activist. "He's running for the wrong office. He should be running for the prime minister of Israel."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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