It was bewildering that neither U.S. President Barack Obama nor presidential candidate Mitt Romney saw the elephant in their room during their unexciting foreign policy debate in a seemingly tight campaign that partially focused on the Arab Spring and, in general, the Middle East, last Monday.
The American president and his Republican opponent hardly mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, now in its 65th year. In fact, a quick Google check found that Obama did not mention the word “Palestine” or Palestinian” once, while Romney did 35 times. As the Associated Press noted, “both men voiced heavy support for Israel’s security in an apparent gesture to influential Jewish voters.”
Romney even claimed, ludicrously, that the Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever in peace.”
The debate came just as Israel stopped, once again, a Norwegian boat, the Estelle, from reaching Gaza, the Israeli besieged Palestinian city on Eastern Mediterranean, and escorted it to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
In less than two weeks, a new American president will be elected, most likely Obama, but there is little hope that he would once again try, as he did when he assumed office four years ago, to immediately initiate peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis. He failed to stop Israeli settlement building, where now about 500,000 settlers are living illegally on the Palestinian side.
The 90-minute debate between Obama and Romney, aired on television nationwide, had hardly any hint that the new administration, Democratic or Republican, would bring the two sides at the peace table once again.
“There was no rational or even consequential understanding [by President Obama and Governor Romney] of the dynamics that led to the Arab uprising,” noted former Arab League ambassador, Dr Clovis Maksoud. He added that underlying their stance vis-à-vis the region “was their competition as to who is closer to Israel’s strategic role and interests in the region.”
He continued: “Focusing on Iran rendered Israel central to both their policies and perspectives of the future. This led to the unfortunate marginalization of the centrality of the Palestinian question as a main issue of the region and its future. On the major issue of Palestine, both candidates predicated their policy on Israel’s pivotal role. There was no coherent discourse by either candidate as they were adopting nearly identical narratives which made their evaluation of the region a historical inopportunity.”
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said it was “dispiriting to watch both candidates race to pander to Israel and vying to demonstrate greater support for more crippling sanctions on Iran.”
She added: “The lack of daylight between the candidates’ views only reinforces the need to continue to build a powerful, grassroots movement that, like our civil rights movement did, will eventually force our government to actually live up to the noble principles of justice and human rights that the candidates talked about tonight.”
Earlier this month, 15 leaders of Christian churches sent a letter to the U.S. Congress, calling on it “to treat Israel like it would any other country.”
Rev. Gradye Parsons, the top official of the Presbyterian Church USA, went on, urging Congress “to make sure our military aid is going to a country espousing the values we would as Americans — that it’s not being used to continually violate the human rights of other people.”
Their intention was to put the Palestinian plight and the stalled peace negotiations back into the spotlight since surveys, reported The New York Times, have shown that Palestinians and Israelis overwhelmingly support a two-state solution.
Most admirable recently, have been the undertakings by former president Jimmy Carter who, at 88, was recently in Jerusalem, where he declared that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lacks the courage of his predecessors and has abandoned the two-state solution.
“I do not think there’s any doubt that Netanyahu has decided the one-state option is the one he’s going to pursue,” he said, describing it as a “catastrophe — not for the Palestinians, for Israel”.
Carter said: “The U.S. government policy the last two to three years has basically been a rapid withdrawal from any kind of controversy.”
He continued: “Every president has been a very powerful factor here in advocating this two-state solution. That is now not apparent.”
The situation is “worse now than it’s been for the Palestinians because of the expanding settlements and the lack of prospects for change”, Carter said.
What is it going to take to change U.S. policy, which seems to be influenced by the American dictum “It’s about the economy, stupid!”
To a large extent this may be true, but any new U.S. administration should not stay handcuffed for long. Neither should the Arab world continue to mark time in the hope that the next U.S. administration will take action.
(George S. Hishmeh is a writer for The Jordan Times where this article was published on Oct. 26, 2012)