Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is Obama the Right Choice for Palestinians/Israelis?

Is Obama the One?
By Joharah Baker f
February 06, 2008

The Palestinians, whether based on sound foundations or not, have been inclined to offer their support to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Perhaps this is because of the fact that Obama hardly represents the run-of-the-mill American presidential candidate. Born in Hawaii to an American mother and a Kenyan father, Barack Obama is not your typical “white bread” American. The fact that his father was Muslim, even though Barack Hussein Obama was raised a Christian, is also a point of familiarity with the Palestinians in sharp contrast to other candidates such as Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

Obama’s background, while perhaps much more appealing to the psyche of the underdog – in this case the Palestinians and in the US, African-Americans, should certainly not be the sole reason for supporting him. For the Palestinians, what is truly important is whether Obama, who promises change, will actually make a difference in this historical conflict. Following Super Tuesday, on February 5, Obama has proven himself to be a force to reckon with, winning 13 states. While Clinton won nine, she did take the more significant states such as California and New York, coming out with a slight margin over Obama.

Still, the Democratic vote is split and the Democrats’ presidential spot in the upcoming elections is anyone’s game. This is why if the Palestinians – including the Palestinian-American community – is to back Obama, they should be as informed as possible on what this young, intelligent and extremely ambitious man will do if he moves into the White House.
The Palestinians would have had ample reason to back Obama less than a year ago. While speaking to voters in Iowa in March, 2007, Obama addressed the Palestinian situation, sympathetically stating that, “No one is suffering more than the Palestinians.” And it is not as if Obama did not have first-hand experience to back up his sentiments. A year earlier, in January 2006, Obama made a nine-day trip to the Middle East, wrapping up the last five days in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

While Obama acted the typical US politician – meeting with Israeli officials first – he did give the Palestinians and their situation more time than usual for such trips. On his visit to the Palestinian territories where he met with President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian businessmen and university students, Obama acknowledged the hardships of the Palestinian people.
“Palestinians have to suffer through the checkpoint system, the barriers, the fenced-in wall that exists just to get to their jobs, often times to travel from north and south even within the West Bank. It's created enormous hardship for them - there is high unemployment and the economy is not doing as well as it should.”

To sum up his impressions, Obama admitted as he left from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport at the end of his visit that this area is an “extraordinarily complex place.”

That was two years ago. Now that Obama is well on his way to fighting for the White House, he has, for whatever reason, changed his tune. Following rumors, circulated largely by the Jewish lobby in the United States that Obama was pro-Palestinian and therefore anti-Israel, the presidential candidate has pulled out all the stops in trying to convince Israel’s supporters that they can trust him.

Last week Obama parroted Washington’s official stance on Israel, confirming that, “Israel is our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy". He also assured his largely Jewish audience that "we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel.”

Throughout the course of his speech, he did not once criticize Israel, its illegal settlements or even the wall, which just two years ago he admitted was a “major bone of contention” in the conflict.

The question remains whether Obama has truly had a change of heart or is he attempting to allay fears among the strongest and most influential lobby in the United States in his bid for the presidency? The man, no doubt, has been under extreme pressure and has by his own admission been plagued by a “constant virulent campaign against him” aimed at weakening him in the Jewish community. For goodness sake, Jewish lobbyers have given Obama endless grief over a 1998 picture of Obama and his wife Michelle having dinner with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. They have associated him with Louis Farrakhan, the controversial head of the Nation of Islam, merely because the head of Obama’s church praised the leader calling him a man “who truly epitomized greatness.”

Well understanding that discontent means loss of votes, Obama quickly addressed the episode, saying his church leader had made a “mistake in judgment”

As it stands, Obama is now towing the official US government line on the conflict, that is, he is playing it safe. He says he believes in a two-state solution for two nations but only if “Israel has security that the Palestinians will not only sign a final agreement but actually implement it.” In others words, it is for the Palestinians to be more trustworthy, to commit to peace like Israel has been doing all along.

Still, even if Obama is only catering to the Jewish community so as to secure more votes, he has made certain statements that make the Palestinians doubt whether it is change that he really wants. Not only has he fully endorsed the concept of Israel as a Jewish state but has touched on the untouchable: the refugee right of return, deeming that this right “cannot be interpreted in any literal way.”

Nonetheless, Obama still seems to be the better candidate where Palestine is concerned both in comparison with rival Hillary Clinton and the strongest Republican runner, John McCain.
McCain, whose place in the race was doubtful until his surprise sweep on February 5 when he won eight major states, seems now to have clearly cemented his place as the Republican’s front runner. Not great news for the Palestinians, though. That’s for sure.

John McCain has never made his bias towards Israel a secret. Back in April 2002, in a speech to an AIPAC conference, McCain reassured them that “There will always be an Israel.” Then, in a tirade that gives even the most extremist Israeli officials a run for their money, McCain shamelessly bashed the Palestinians. “The terrorist onslaught against her people represents not progress towards a re-foundation of historic Palestine but a plunge into an abyss of moral decay perpetrated in the name of the Palestinian people by their own leaders. There will always be an Israel, because the Israeli people will defend their homeland against murderers who pose as martyrs, and will never accept justice imposed on them by leaders who send children to kill their children.”

McCain then ended his speech by saying that he was “proudly pro-Israel.”

Not much has changed since then. In November 2007, as the race to the White House was just getting underway, McCain expressed his distaste for anything Palestinian yet again, offering his pearls of wisdom on the faltering Palestinian-Israeli peace process. “It's complicated rather dramatically by the fact that in Gaza you have a terrorist organization in charge that is dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel,” he told a group of 150. "It's kinda hard to make progress in negotiations with a group of people who want to take you out completely.”

So, while the Israelis are obsessing over which prospective US President will do more for Israel, many Palestinians continue to put their eggs in the Obama basket. Of course, no one is expecting any miracles. Even if Obama makes it to Washington there are enough people there to ensure that Israel will always be taken care of, even if at the expense of a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Still, Palestinian-Israeli conflict aside, having an educated, eloquent and deserving man at the helm of US politics would definitely be a huge breath of fresh air.