US elections: hope for Palestine?

While Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated discussions on the Middle East during the campaign, Laura Wilkinson looks at what the presidential election means for Palestine.

While Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated discussions on the Middle East during the campaign, Laura Wilkinson looks at what the presidential election means for Palestine.

The past several weeks have seen several interesting developments in U.S. foreign policy. George Bush announced that North Korea is to be struck off the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, the notorious “Axis of Evil”. The Iraqi government made the unprecedented gesture of setting its own calendar for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Meanwhile in an increasingly deteriorating Afghanistan, U.S. generals are contemplating negotiations with the Taliban. And presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama has expressed a willingness to hold “high-level” talks with long-standing foe Iran.

On 17 October, the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf welcomed Obama’s suggestion for dialogue but also spoke of a country encompassing both Israel and the Palestinian territories to replace the Jewish state. “Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” Qalibaf said, “must be allowed to return to their own land and, through a democratic and free election, choose the type of government they would like to have.” If a change in U.S. policy towards Palestine is a going to be a prerequisite for diplomatic ties with Iran, then Obama’s intentions will bear little fruit.

Israel enjoys $3 billion annually in U.S. foreign aid excluding loans and various military packages. Some of this money allegedly goes into illegal settlement building in the Occupied West Bank.

For many people worldwide, 2008 has been a year of optimism as both presidential candidates promised a sea-change in U.S. foreign policy. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the Naqba – Arabic for ‘catastrophe’ – a reference to what Israelis simultaneously celebrate as independence. If 60 years have so far seen Israel ignore numerous U.N. resolutions, whether in relation to illegal settlement expansion or the building of the infamous “security fence”, then it is fair to assume that the next four years are unlikely to reconcile any “final-status” issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Issues such as the status of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, the control of the region’s water supply and the building of settlements on disputed territory remain fraught. All the more so since both presidential candidates have reaffirmed the unconditional support of the U.S. for the Israeli state.

On 23 July this year Palestinians suffered disappointment following Obama’s 24-hour trip to Israel. He spent only 45 minutes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where he visited Ramallah. His wearing of a yarmulke (Jewish skull cap) during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial – somewhat indicative of the Christian-Zionist alliance, one might say – incised Palestinians, and the whole itinerary was met by both Arab and Israeli media with scorn.
The Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz carried the headline “Obama visiting Israel to impress Jewish voters, not Israelis” even though Obama declared he would continue to “regard Israel as a valued ally”. Despite claiming that the U.S. needs to “recognise the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now,” the Middle East Times reported that “his brief stop [in Ramallah] was privately criticized by Palestinian diplomats as insignificant and a mere attempt to show that he could be more impartial in the peace process than his Republican opponent.” The Democratic senator opened a Pandora’s box this summer when he told the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel. The remarks drew fire from Palestinian, Arab and Muslim leaders.

The Democratic senator’s comments at a pro-Israel lobby that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel drew fire from Palsetinian, Arab and Muslim leaders

Reiterating his wish to play an active role in the Middle East peace-process, Obama visited the Israeli town of S’derot which is frequently a target of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza. The presidential candidate did not visit the impoverished Strip, which presently continues to suffer as a result of the economic blockade imposed by Israel.
In an article published by Ha’aretz during Obama’s whirlwind tour, Aluf Benn wrote, “Israelis don’t interest McCain and Obama. Rather, it is their Jewish voters and contributors at home. Barack Hussein Obama – with his Muslim stepfather and his childhood in Indonesia, his suggestion to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the leftist image that adheres to his advisors – has raised deep anxieties among the Jewish establishment.”

With only days to go before the US election itself a New York University poll has found that American Jews favor Obama over Republican candidate John McCain 67-33 percent. Yet only 42% of Jews surveyed who believed Israel held a “very high” importance said they would vote for Obama. In another survey of American Jewish voters, carried out in July by the American Jewish Committee, only three percent said Israel was their main priority.

Despite such apparent courting of the Jewish vote, the reality on the ground for Palestinians living under occupation is unlikely to change for the better in any given U.S. administration. In an article published just after Obama’s Middle Eastern visit, Palestine Think Tank wrote “There is no reason for optimism. Obama is following the well-worn path of 100 per cent, unwavering support for Israel and the Zionist project.”

The article documents the experience of Palestinian activist and author Ali Abunimah who met Obama in Chicago in the 1990s. The Princeton graduate who occasionally contributes to the Guardian newspaper felt that Obama grasped the oppression faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. “He understood that an honest broker cannot simultaneously be the main cheerleader, financier and arms supplier for one side in a conflict. He often attended Palestinian-American community events and heard about the Palestinian experience from perspectives stifled in mainstream discussion,” wrote Abunimah.

Humanist sympathies aside, the structures of political and economic influence within the US Senate remain the underlying factors of America’s relationship with Israel. On 18 October, the news agency Inter Press Service ran an article suggesting that key organisations in the Israel lobby, such as AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, are “run by hard-liners who generally support the expansionist policies of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, including its hostility to the Oslo peace process”.

Israel enjoys $3 billion annually in U.S. foreign aid excluding loan agreements and various military packages. The Jewish state is an exception among U.S. aid recipients in that it is not required to account for how the money is spent. According to IPS, some of the money goes into settlement building in the Occupied West Bank, construction of which is illegal under international law.

Unless the incoming U.S. administration – Democratic or Republican – decides to take Israel to task on these issues, from a Palestinian perspective it will be a far cry from “change we can believe in”.