Candidates chase votes by promising peace in Middle East

Palestinian protestors near the Israeli border.

US relations with Palestine, Israel and Iran will prove key to a successful presidency for the winner of this election. Photo credit:

By Tom Erik Dale

During the foreign policy debate between the two main presidential candidates, the Middle East was a hot topic. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney battled over support for Israel and its chilly relations with Iran, whilst seemingly less attention was paid to Palestine and the Occupied Territories.

With the Jewish population of the USA at 2.2% (that is approximately 6,489,000 people) and the Muslim population making up just below 1% (roughly 2,600,000 of the overall population) peace in the Middle East is never far from the political agenda. Muslims are also the most rapidly increasing religious community in the US, and have greater concentration in many of the swing states like Virginia and Florida. It means they are increasingly being targeted for votes by both political parties.

Targeting the Muslim vote

Traditionally, Jewish voters are solid Democrat voters. In 2008, over 75% of the Jewish electorate voted for them. “I am drawn to the Democratic Party because they are more in the interests of those who require government aid,” says Rabbi Seth Adelson, of Great Neck, New York.

“Having said that, neither party is adequately attuned to those quarters of society.”

Imam Hafiz Bilal from Oceanside in California has a different perspective, “Do I feel drawn to either party because of my faith? No. But I prefer Obama.”

Before the Bush administration Muslims had been overwhelmingly Republican. In the Florida election in 2000, George W. Bush won around 50,000 more Muslim votes than Al Gore (the Democratic candidate). In a state where the vote was won by 557 votes this was crucial.

Dr Franklyn Niles, a professor of political science at John Brown University believes that since 9/11 Muslim voters in the US are not a group that is actively mobilised by either party. He believes that there is no one who wants to actively support the Palestinian cause in the US: “There’s not a real strong centre of leadership on the pro-Palestinian side, that’s not a popular sentiment among many people.”

Dr Niles agrees: “Peace between Palestine and Israel could be an effective campaign slogan, but to be effective and to be compelling in the United States right now it would have to be framed in terms of being on Israel’s side.”

“The enthusiasm towards Israel is pronounced among evangelical voters, while Jewish people overwhelmingly vote Democrat, Republicans are overwhelmingly pro-Israel because of the religious sentiment.”

Imam Bilal feels the Palestinian issue is not something people care about in the US. He said: “Palestinians are flies in the ointment that many hope will just go away.”

Chances for peace

Mitt Romney’s words from a leaked video, published on 18th September by Mother Jones magazine, will not give the Imam much hope. Mr Romney  (unaware he was being filmed) was caught on camera saying “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace.”

President Obama has recently stated his thoughts on the issue in an address to the UN General Assembly on 25th September: “The future must not belong to those who turn their backs on a prospect of peace.  Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict.”

Rabbi Adelson believes that the Obama administration has been the most supportive of Israel of any in recent memory, particularly on matters of Israel’s security, but despite the Presidents rhetoric Rabbi Adelson believes that Obama has not done enough to promote peace. He accepts that it is out of the President’s hands: “Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas can’t seem to bring themselves back to the negotiating table,” he says.

The Rabbi believes that the key to peace lies in the security of Israel: “Israel will not come back to the table unless they feel secure. Supporting Israel’s security ultimately supports the peace process.”

This is a viewpoint echoed by Dr Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr Wolfsfeld says that President Obama has been good for Israel in terms of the country’s security, but added: “For multiple reasons he was unable to move the peace process forward.”

Imam Bilal on the other hand believes that no president can refuse Israel’s demands and have a successful presidency. “Israel knows it,” he says.

“Palestinians have to attempt negotiations with a belligerent who merely is looking their way to save international face but has no real motivations, persuasions or intentions to seek a mutual fair resolution,” the Imam adds.

Analysts say that without a real motivation for restarting the peace process coming from Washington, Israelis and Palestinians will be left to negotiate with each other, and many worry how effective this would be.

It is undeniable that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be on the list of priorities for whoever becomes President after the election. The question is: How far up this list will each candidate place it?

“It has the potential to have a good deal of effect. If Barak Obama is re-elected it is possible that he will get a peace process started again,” says Dr Wolfsfeld.

“If Romney is elected he may still make an effort, but at the present time the Palestinians see him as completely on Israel’s side. He would not be seen as an honest broker.”

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