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Edwards comments on Mideast draw fire

WASHINGTON -- Arab-Americans, who make up a significant minority in three closely contested states, are sending a flurry of angry letters and e-mails complaining that John Edwards did not mention Palestinians in his answer to a question about the Middle East in the vice presidential debate Tuesday.

"I've been getting complaints and phone calls from all over the country," said Abed Awad, who is nominated to be a member of the Electoral College from New Jersey. "I am a loyal Democrat. I love my party, and that's why I am working so hard to bring in the Arab-American vote. But I was surprised when Edwards made his comments about Israel in the sense that he forgot to mention the Palestinian people."

Mark Kitchens, a spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, said, "There was never any intention to offend Arab-American supporters." He said the Democratic ticket, if elected, "will work tirelessly to achieve a stable peace in the Middle East." The trouble arose when Edwards was asked Tuesday night about what his administration would do to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"At a time when the United States seems absent in the peacemaking process, what would your administration do?" moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS asked.

Edwards responded by saying the Israeli people have a right to defend themselves from terrorists. He made no mention of Palestinian homes that have been bulldozed by Israeli forces or the dozens of innocent Palestinians killed this week in an Israeli offensive.

"What are the Israeli people supposed to do? How can they continue to watch Israeli children killed by suicide bombers, killed by terrorists?" Edwards said. "Now if Gaza's being used as a platform for attacking the Israeli people, that has to be stopped."

Edwards made no mention of a commitment to a two-state solution -- as Vice President Dick Cheney did -- even though it is also a position taken by John F. Kerry, his running mate.

"In his entire two-minute response, Senator Edwards didn't deem it necessary to mention Palestinian suffering or a Palestinian state once. So much for balance," reads an "action alert" sent out by the Arab American Institute, one of several such nonpartisan organizations that sent out alerts.

"I don't think they forgot us. I think part of it is taking us for granted," said James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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