Thin pickings from November 2

Whatever the differences in policy, style and integrity between the two US presidential candidates as they go neck and neck to the polls on November 2, on one topic they are united: the Middle East.

Many Arabs and campaigners for a just solution in the Middle East will recall that in the run-up to the 2000 elections, there were high hopes that after eight years of Bill Clinton and the most pro-Israeli American administration in history, a Republican president might tilt the balance back in the direction taken by George Bush senior in the early 1990s: forcing Israel to talk peace face to face with neighboring Arabs it had hitherto shunned, the Syrians and the Palestinians, and even threatening financial penalties when Israel refused to co-operate (a policy that helped lose Bush senior his second term).

The optimism was worse than unwarranted. At first, President George W. Bush and his team ignored the Middle East, leaving the Palestinian-Israeli crisis to suppurate, even as the Aqsa Intifada erupted and Israel wildly over-reacted. September 11, 2001, rudely dragged their attention back to the region, and Israel seized the opportunity to conflate America’s "war on terror" with its own assault on Palestine. The US leadership progressively adopted policies that not only gave Israel a free hand for its brutality in the occupied territories and its continuing theft of Palestinian land and property, but threw itself behind Likud in sanctioning, earlier this year, Sharon’s none-too-subtle plans for abandoning Gaza–perhaps–in exchange for a free hand in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

President Bush and his cabal of Zionist neo-cons have backed the separation wall, ruled out the right of return for the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants, and accepted, in total negation of Security Council Resolution 242, that Palestinian land acquired by force in 1967 can and will continue to be settled by hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

What of Mr. Kerry?

Nations not directly affected by Israel, in Europe, Africa, the Far East, look (with diminishing expectations) for a Democratic victory next month on the grounds that a Kerry administration would be more sensitive to the interests of others, more responsive, say, on the environment, on trade, and the role of the United Nations (though on the global deployment of US military might, Kerry has made hawkish noises) and more inclined to listen to the EU and other partners. For most leaders, he would be more simpatico, a less oafish president. He also speaks English (and French).

Certainly here in Britain, were we to have the vote, Kerry would win in a landslide, not just among ordinary citizens but among politicians of all parties, except perhaps United Kingdom Independence Party and the British Nationalist Party.

Alas, for the Arab Middle East there is no solace discernible in a Kerry victory.

The Democratic candidate has made it clear in a written message to Democrats, drafted by his Middle East adviser, Jay Footlik, that his attitude toward Israel and the Palestinians is indistinguishable from that of George Bush. His emphasis is, as ever, Israel’s security; his pro-Israel voting record is "second-to-none", says Footlik’s missive… "Israel’s cause must be America’s cause." He supports Israel’s "right of self-defense", including its actions against Hamas and "other terrorist groups" (that is to say, assassinations, military campaigns against civilians, destroying Palestinian property).

Kerry agrees with the separation wall and its course, would move the US embassy to Jerusalem, opposes the right of return and accepts the permanence of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Looking back over the past eleven years or so of America and Israel-Palestine, the only tangible difference between the Democrats and the Republicans (as now constituted under Bush and Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld) has been that while Republicans follow the full-frontal rejectionism of the Likud, Democrats have favored the slyer, less obvious but nonetheless implacable Zionism of Labor.

However, as is evident from his campaign literature–and history teaches us not to fall for the idea that this is electioneering propaganda that will be abandoned if he reaches the White House–a Kerry presidency would have no great problem following in Ariel Sharon’s wake, just like George W. Bush.

On Iraq, Kerry’s future plans duplicate Bush’s. As Time magazine reported recently, these are: training more Iraqi security forces; elections on schedule; bringing in more allied troops to share the occupation; speeding up reconstruction. Most of these "allies" will be no more tempted into Iraq under a Kerry regime than they have been under Bush.

More importantly, both would-be American leaders are committed to a course of "seeing it through" rather than to the sensible one of making firm and early plans to withdraw American and other occupying forces from Iraq, scrap plans for bases–futile anyway– and make clear that Iraq’s oil, resources and political future integrity belong to the Iraqis and only the Iraqis.

Arabs must prepare for more–much more–of the same.