By Joharah Baker
When Barak Obama first appeared as a presidential candidate, it was as if a tiny breath of fresh air had swept across America, making its way over the Atlantic and into the lungs of Palestinians desperate for a change in the almighty Oval Office. Palestinians aren’t that naïve, however, to actually believe Obama could ever make any significant change to their plight, vis-à-vis Israel’s occupation over their lands. Still, his face was young and fresh, he had a Muslim – albeit estranged – father and he was black, thus establishing some common ground between them.
The love affair was short lived however, tainted with episodes of betrayal. While Obama understandably sang to the tune of any presidential candidate who strives for half a chance, pledging his support to Israel and its security, Obama managed to distance himself slightly from the usual gushing associated with support for the Jewish state.
For one, Obama was clear about his intentions to push the peace process forward, saying he undeniably supports the establishment of a Palestinian state and would actively work towards realizing this goal. The Palestinians seem to believe him as well, unlike their lack of faith in the current US President George W. Bush who "talks the talk" of a vision of a Palestinian state but certainly doesn’t "walk the walk."
During a visit to Tokyo in June, PA Planning Minister Samir Abdallah pinned his and the leadership’s hopes on Obama’s victory. "We would like to see Obama elected. If he is elected, an agreement about the foundation of a Palestinian state (would be) reached," he said. "Obama promised he will not wait until the last period of his office to re-launch negotiations … he will begin doing this from his first day."
This seems to be an overly optimistic perspective given Obama’s change of heart, especially after he clinched the Democratic nomination last month. Almost immediately after his victory over Hillary Clinton, Obama addressed AIPAC, saying "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided." That single sentence brought down any inflated hopes and expectations the Palestinians had about Obama, relegating him to the unenviable and hopeless status of almost every other candidate running for the US presidency.
Ok, perhaps Obama will never be as despised as Republican nominee John McCain who openly supports Israel and the US’s war in Iraq. Still, Obama’s shift was widely understood as a desperate attempt to secure as many Jewish votes in November’s elections as possible. Why else would he go from compassion with the Palestinians, saying things like "No one has suffered more than the Palestinians" – a virtue rarely detected in US leaders – to shunning their rights to Jerusalem, somewhere even the most right-wing presidents have never dared to go?
The comment unsurprisingly caused a huge backlash with Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs, who expressed their disappointment in Barak "Hussein" Obama.
"This statement is totally rejected," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Ramallah following the AIPAC speech. "The whole world knows that holy Jerusalem was occupied in 1967, and we will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state."
It is understandable that Obama would use all legitimate means necessary to sprint, walk or even crawl his way into the White House, perhaps even using the "fake it until you make it" policy. It is still extremely uncomfortable to hear him sell out Jerusalem in his bid to reach the finish line.
Apparently, Obama felt the backlash as well, or at least his advisors did. In what can only be described as damage control, Obama said during an interview with CNN this week that his AIPAC speech contained some "poor phrasing," adding that "we immediately tried to correct the interpretation that was given."
According to the Obama campaign, an undivided Jerusalem where Palestinians are kicked out or stripped of their rights is not what the Democratic candidate meant. Never mind that this is how it was construed by the hundreds of Jewish leaders listening intently to his speech that day, eliciting a standing ovation. "The point we were simply making was, is that we don’t want barbed wire running through Jerusalem, similar to the way it was prior to the ’67 War, that it is possible for us to create a Jerusalem that is cohesive and coherent."
In other words, a united, open Jerusalem where everyone lives in peace and harmony.
How much this has served to allay Palestinian fears that Obama is actually sincere in his intentions to push for a Palestinian state remains to be seen. Obama will have to put himself out a bit more to undo the damage he has done or he risks losing a significant number of Arab and Muslim votes.
This glitch in his campaign is just one of many for the young ambitious senator. Obama, unlike his opponent, aging Vietnam War veteran John McCain, has several balancing acts to manage, the sticky Palestinian-Israeli conflict just one. He has been accused of being "unpatriotic" (yes, he was presumptuous enough not to wear a lapel pin in the shape of the American flag on his campaign tour), sympathetic to "terrorists" (he did say he would engage Iran if he were elected) and Muslim (is he supposed to deny his ancestry? His Kenyan father and Indonesian stepfather were Muslim. That is a fact).
This enmity is rooted in the American people’s fear of anything or anyone slightly different. This fear of the unknown breeds prejudice and racism, all of which have been apparent in statements and accusations from Obama’s opponents in the other camp.
Last week, the highly reputable magazine, The New Yorker caused a stir among Obama supporters when its cover depicted the Democratic presidential nominee and his wife, Michelle as "terrorist enemies of the United States." The caricature shows Obama in the Oval Office dressed in Muslim garb, his wife Michelle with a machine gun slung over her back. In the fireplace behind them, an American flag is burning and a picture of Osama Bin Laden is hanging on the wall.
Obama has so far refrained from commenting personally to the magazine but his campaign spokesperson, Bill Burton called it "tasteless and offensive." While the magazine has defended itself saying it was a "satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create", it is still highly controversial, particularly given Americans’ hyper sensitivity to topics such as patriotism and terrorism.
Needless to say, Obama has a tough road ahead of him before he can start unpacking his bags at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Apparently, he is taking nothing for granted in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. According to officials from both sides, Obama will visit Israel and the West Bank next week. The final details of the visit have not yet been publicized but Palestinians say the presidential hopeful is slated to meet with President Abbas among others in Ramallah.
This could be Obama’s best move yet, especially in contrast with McCain, who visited Israel last March and completely shunned the Palestinians. If Obama knows what’s good for him, he will brush up on the intricacies of this complex conflict before saying anything that could prove detrimental to his campaign. With this visit, Obama could regain the Palestinians’ trust. This time, however, let’s hope he chooses his words carefully, because in this topsy-turvy part of the world, almost every political reference is a potential landmine.
– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in MIFTA – www.miftah.org)