Obama and Palestine

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While the U.S. presidential election is being followed closely all around the world, Palestinian appetite for news of this country’s election is insatiable. The feelings of Palestinians in the streets of Ramallah or the Gaza refugee camp is that the policies carried out by the resident of the White House will have a direct effect on their lives.

Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)’s foreign policy doesn’t seem different from the current administration’s unilateral military action, the continuation of the so-called war on terror and refusals to engage in dialogue with the leaders of Syria and Iran.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who had the courage to call for a Palestinian state during her days as first lady, has become a pro-Israeli hawk ever since she ran for the Senate in 2000.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), however, is seen differently.

Because of the religious background of his father and step-father, he is seen as a candidate who understands and empathizes with Muslims, even while willing to take on bin Laden and his like militarily with or without Pakistan’s OK.

Obama’s multilateralism is very refreshing. His call for dialogue with enemies rather than boycotts gives genuine priority to diplomacy over war, leaving the latter as a truly last resort. Ironically, the Obama campaign has avoided applying its own concept to the issue of talking to the Islamic Hamas movement in Palestine. The campaign’s argument that Hamas is a movement and not a state doesn’t hold water, considering that Palestinians have been yearning for a state for decades and pro-Hamas leaders where elected in a free and fair election in 2006. If Obama were running for president two decades ago, he surely would not have used that justification regarding talking to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, which was also not a state.

Obama supporters note that, though Obama has refused to talk directly to Hamas, it is clear that his willingness to talk to the Syrian and Iranian leaders would provide a group like Hamas – whose leaders are supported by these countries – an opportunity to be heard, albeit indirectly. By agreeing to talk to these countries, Obama will be indirectly connecting with the Hamas leaders.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more specifically, the Obama campaign has been very clear about its support for the two-state solution but has been vague on how to reach it. Ironically, Obama was the most forthcoming when speaking to 100 members of Cleveland, Ohio’s Jewish community, as reported in The New York Sun on Feb. 25.

"This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here," he said. "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel." Obama explained his overall plans for the region: "My goal then would be to solicit as many practical opinions as possible in terms of how we’re going to move forward on the im-provement of [Palestinian-Israeli] relations and a sustainable peace."

The mixed-race American candidate also said that he has consistently urged Palestinians when he was in Ramallah to "relinquish the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn’t mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues." Obama noted an irony about conversations on the issue in the United States. "One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It’s very ironic." Referring to the best way to reach peace, Obama concluded by saying, "I want practical, hardheaded, unromantic advice about how we’re going to achieve that."

But in response to controversy over statements his pastor made which included criticism U.S. support of what he called Israel’s "state sponsored terrorism against Palestinians," Obama un-fortunately discounted all the national struggles of Palestinians –” including secular Palestinians, moderate Muslim and Christian Palestinians –” by attacking Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermon as "a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

Nevertheless, the Obama candidacy is a source of optimism for some. Many Palestinians believe that if diplomacy will trump force in resolving U.S. problems in Iraq and the dispute with Iran, a practical solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be necessary. The independence of the Obama campaign from right-wing Christians and pro-Israel lobbyists bodes well for many hoping that such a presidency can be more balanced than the current administration in its approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Contrasted with the quickly-fading promises of President Bush for a peace treaty in 2008, Obama’s candidacy is welcomed.

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