Obama, McCain, the Middle Eastern ‘Street’ and You

obama palestine Obama, McCain, the Middle Eastern Street and You Earlier this year, at the Arab League Summit in Damascus, when Muammar Qaddafi’s turn came at the lectern, he launched into a spirited and fiery criticism, a rant, really, directed at his fellow Arabs, specifically on the issue of Palestine and Israel. “Whatever happened to the cause (Palestinian) we had before 1967?” he asked his audience. “Were we lying to ourselves or to the world?” he continued. “How can you say that Israel must return to the pre-1967 borders? Does Palestine consist only of the West Bank and Gaza? If so,” he added with a air of disgust, “it means that the Israelis did not occupy it in 1948. They left it to you for 20 years, so why didn’t you establish a Palestinian state? Wasn’t Gaza part of Egypt, and the West Bank part of Jordan?

The heads of state and sheikhs in the room all smiled, or in some cases laughed, albeit uncomfortably. All except Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister of Iran, whose non-Arab country had unusually been invited this year as an observer, who remained stone-faced while he listened through headphones (for very few Iranians speak or understand Arabic), and who the television cameras mischievously panned up to as if to make Qaddafi’s point. (Iran is the only country in the region that staunchly supports, morally, financially, and militarily, Hamas, which, along with Islamic Jihad, remains committed to a one-state solution, i.e., a Palestinian state that encompasses all of Israel.) The smiles of the Arab leaders for the cameras betrayed their view of Qaddafi, known as well in the Arab world (at least among the ruling elites) for a certain, shall we say, wackiness, as he is in the West, as well as their discomfort with the truth of what their wacky, often clownish cousin was saying. That truth was being broadcast by Al Jazeera to millions of their citizens. Citizens who (according to polls in 2006 and 2007) were far more enamored of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanese Hezbollah and the lean, almost emaciated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, perversely both Shias, than of their own smiling, Sunni, pro-Western, well-fed (and often corpulent) leaders.

The Arab League Summit, as in years past, was convened partly to address what was Qaddafi’s obsession in 2008 and what has been the single most important issue facing the Arab (and Muslim) world over the past 60 years, namely, what was once the Arab-Israeli, and is now simply the Palestinian-Israeli, conflict. (Ironically, the two nations Qaddafi mentioned by name, Jordan and Egypt, as having held Palestinian territory, are the two Arab countries that have made peace with Israel and have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, a point certainly not lost on the television audience.)

It may not be obvious what any of this could possibly have to do with the upcoming presidential elections in the U.S. Qaddafi may possess a certain sartorial splendor, and his once kohl-rimmed eyes were, if nothing else, a curiosity uncommon to macho Arab leaders, but his proclamations have rarely been either realistic or of serious concern to Americans.

But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, ultimately, a crucial foreign policy issue for any American president who cares to make the world a safer and better place, a goal most recent presidents, George Bush excepted (until very recently, anyway), have acknowledged by their efforts to bring peace to the region. And for Americans Jews and many non-Jews, the Palestinian conflict has always loomed large, not just emotionally, but also in terms of how U.S. administrations, Democratic or Republican, deal with it. Qaddafi may have been way off-base in how he framed the conflict at the Damascus Summit, for it is probably safe to say that most Arabs and Muslims are realistic enough to recognize, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric notwithstanding, that Israel will neither disappear from the map or the “pages of time,” nor retreat anywhere behind pre-1967 borders.

But Qaddafi’s point, that Arab leaders have all but abandoned the Palestinian cause under intense pressure from the United States (and contrary to their citizens’ wishes), was not fantastical. And lest we forget, it was a few of those citizens who, well before the Iraq war, attacked the U.S. or U.S. interests (such as embassies and ships, and of course later New York and Washington). The Palestinian cause was given, at least partially, as the reason, or if you prefer, the excuse.

The U.S. is seen, whether most Americans like it or not, not just as a biased interlocutor or broker in the conflict but even as an impediment to the aspirations of the Palestinian people, not just by Arabs and Muslims, but by the outside world at large. Biased toward Israel, of course, to the point where it has become almost impossible for Palestinians (or other Arabs, even other Muslims) to trust America as a disinterested party. Naturally, no sane Palestinian sympathizer would believe that the U.S. will, under any administration, suddenly become a pro-Arab peacemaker, for U.S.-Israeli ties run deep, but in any election, and perhaps particularly this one, there is an opportunity to examine more closely where a candidate might lie when it comes to the Palestinian issue and how he or she might decide to affect it.

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, the presumptive nominees for president in a race that pits a (traditional) white, Protestant male against a wildly popular African-American son of a Muslim Kenyan, have both emphasized their unwavering support for Israel, as is to be expected of any candidate who hopes to be elected to the highest office in the land. Senator Obama, however, earlier in his candidacy, intimated that his would be a more forceful, respectful and fair foreign policy as it applied to the Middle East. He brought some cheer to the Arab world (and to many Americans), although his more-Catholic-than-the-Pope moment, in an appearance at the AIPAC convention in late spring where he went further than any American president, even the most pro-Israeli in history, in stating that he believed that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel “forever,” caused dismay in some quarters in the region. I happened to be talking to a senior Iranian government official the day of Obama’s appearance at AIPAC and he was astonished by the tone of his remarks.