DEARBORN, Mich. -- Speaking to a crowd of Arab-American activists, Howard Dean said yesterday that if he won the White House he would ask Bill Clinton to be his Middle East envoy, in an attempt to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The former Vermont governor echoed his Democratic rivals for the presidency in saying President Bush has not engaged in enough peace-brokering in the Middle East. But he took a step further with his proposal to enlist the former two-term president.
Despite the escalating tensions in the region, Dean said he was "optimistic" that Israel and the Palestinians were closer than ever to an agreement and that a figure of Clinton's international stature could help bridge the gap.
"Of all the Arab people, the Palestinians probably have the best opportunity to have a democracy," Dean said.
Messages left at Clinton's New York office were not returned yesterday.
All of the Democratic candidates addressed the gathering of Arab-Americans here over the last two days, but Dean clearly elicited the most enthusiasm, generating numerous standing ovations during his 40-minute speech.
The nonprofit Arab American Institute, which does not plan to endorse a candidate, sponsored the gathering.
Even before he arrived, Dean was the talk among those assembled. His comments several weeks ago that the United States should have an "evenhanded policy" resonated deeply with many Arab-Americans here.
"It was a comment of integrity, courageous," said Randall Hamud, a lawyer from San Diego. "Bush is so skewed to the Israeli side." Many here also took disapproving note that Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, was the first to condemn Dean's comments. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, also denounced Dean's remarks, pointing out that official US policy has long viewed Israel as the key ally in the Mideast.
Dean backed away from his comments, but the episode convinced many Arab Americans that a Dean presidency might mean a shift in US policy.
Recent polls of Arab-Americans have found that only 34 percent say they would vote for Bush. His approval rating among them is 43 percent. This figure is more than 10 percent lower than the overall US electorate. A July poll of Arab-Americans by Zogby International found Kerry leading the pack, with 14.5 percent support, followed by Dean, with 14.2 percent, and the rest of the candidates at 10 percent or lower.
On Friday, Lieberman and Kerry, addressing the conference here, called for the resignation of Army Lieutenant General William Boykin, who has told Christian audiences that God supports the US war on terror and that Muslims worship a false God, according to published reports. Yesterday, Dean called on Bush to fire Boykin.
The US Arab population is clustered in several key electoral states: New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Numerous speakers told the Dearborn audience of about 300 that the 2004 election, in which issues involving their homelands loom large, is crucial to their future as Americans.
"This flag" said Dean, pointing to a hanging American flag, "belongs to every American. It does not belong to John Ashcroft or William Boykin or Rush Limbaugh or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson." This regular stump-speech line seemed to have special impact as several Arab-Americans in the audience shed tears.
Raja Mishra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.