Lieberman, the first of seven Democratic presidential candidates scheduled to speak at the Arab American Institute’s national leadership conference, on Friday refused to criticise Israeli policies and insisted on the need for Palestinians “to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure”.
His comments drew such a vehement response that James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, had to intervene twice to calm the audience of several hundred so that Lieberman could continue.
The irate audience interrupted him several times, demanding to know his position on what they described Israeli “terrorism” and on Israel’s planned security barrier through the West Bank.
“What about the wall?” shouted one woman.
Israel says it needs the security fence to fend off Palestinian attacks, but critics describe it variously as an apartheid wall, a new “Berlin Wall” and a land grab.
“I think his unwillingness to be critical at all of Israel, and only to be critical of the Palestinians, is a mistake for a presidential candidate”
A chorus of moans could be heard when Lieberman said “the wall is temporary” and would be torn down when Israel and a contiguous Palestinian state live side-by-side in peace.
However, Lieberman won applause for criticising the roundup of hundreds of Arabs and Muslims after the September 11 attacks and for expressing outrage over remarks from a senior Pentagon intelligence official who has told Christian gatherings that Muslims worship an “idol”.
“I’ve studied Islam. That’s not just wrong. That is a desecration. The war on terrorism is a war on terrorists, not on religions,” said Lieberman, an orthodox Jew.
Arab-Americans could provide an important swing vote in Michigan (where Detroit is) and other states still considered wide open in the 2004 presidential election.
But Lieberman won little visible support on his visit on Friday to the Detroit area that boasts one of the largest populations of Muslims and Arabs outside the Middle East.
“I think his unwillingness to be critical at all of Israel, and only to be critical of the Palestinians, is a mistake for a presidential candidate,” Ismael Ahmad, a prominent local community leader.
“It certainly won’t garner support in our community,” he added. “Much of what he said actually was to the right of (President George) Bush.”
Lieberman later told reporters he expected to face criticism from the crowd.
“I was not going to pander or waffle to please a crowd,” he said of his defence of Israel.