Clutching at the Thinnest of Straws

By Nadia W. Awad – The West Bank 

After two years of campaigning, debating and fund-raising, the US presidential elections are finally over. And after probably his first decent night’s sleep in two years, President-Elect Barack Obama can finally start to act instead of talking – by making decisions and appointing the team that will guide him for the next four years. He has already said he will not waste any time in doing so and expects to hit the ground running in January.

Palestinians, probably along with most other nationalities around the world, were pleased and not a little relieved to witness an Obama victory. His background and political outlook is much more ‘global’ than his Republican rival John McCain’s. In a time when America’s supremacy remains unchallenged, the American presidency begins to look somewhat more like a global presidency. After breathing a sigh of relief, we foreigners will now watch his next moves closely, for they are decisions that could affect our own lives.

Palestinians in particular, despite their jaded outlook and cynicism – the natural result of living under Israeli rule and occupation for 60 years – couldn’t help but feel a slight warmth of optimism in their hearts when he won. Most Palestinians are not naïve. They do not expect Obama to come flying into the country on a magic carpet to set things right. On the contrary, Obama has made it clear that his priorities lie within the realm of US domestic politics – the economy, health care, immigration laws etc. We also heard his speeches to Jewish communities in the US. In his largely publicized AIPAC speech in June, he pledged his support for Israel in no uncertain terms. In debates, he called the security of Israel sacrosanct. He promised continued US friendship with Israel. Hence, most American tax payers can expect to continue footing the $3 billion a year bill in financial aid to Israel. He has also used harsh words when discussing Iran, North Korea and Russia, amongst others.

All of this rhetoric was to be expected. After all, the man was running for president of the United States. In such a race, voicing any sympathy for the Palestinian cause would have seen him immediately labeled as little better than a terrorist himself. With the middle name Hussein, he had to distance himself from any Muslim or Arab ties, even though he is a Christian of Kenyan descent. A Democrat with no serious national security/foreign policy credentials, he had to adopt the ‘tougher-on-terror’ approach for the sake of political success.

Obama is a pragmatic character. He knew what he had to do to get elected, and now he has succeeded. Some Palestinians identified this trait in him, and understand it. However, myself and other Palestinian analysts are looking back to his comments and associations before he began his presidential campaign. It was that man and his ideas that we are hoping will return to the forefront in the next four years.

Obama’s associations with Professor Rashid Khalidi, then a Palestinian teacher at the University of Chicago, while immediately used as a weapon against him, gave hope to others who saw this association in a different light. According to the LA Times, Obama reminisced about the many dinners he had with Khalidi and his family, and the natural conversations that had ensued. In an enlightened moment, Obama said that his many talks with the Khalidis had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases… It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation — a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table," but around "this entire world." If Obama meant that from his heart, then perhaps all is not lost after all.

In Iowa in February 2007, he also said, "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people…The Israeli government must make difficult concessions for the peace process to restart." Even in February of this year, during a closed meeting with Jews in Cleveland, he suggested that too black and white a perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would help no one and called for an open dialogue on the issue. "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you’re anti-Israel… If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress," he said.

In calls for open dialogue, Obama did not immediately act upon his own advice. Ralph Nader identified the problem correctly when he criticized Obama for concealing any "pro-Palestinian feelings", censoring his own knowledge and instincts, and making the Palestinian-Israeli conflict an "off-the-table" issue. But this is probably one reason why today Obama is president and Nader is not.

Palestinians also look to Obama’s own personal narrative as well. Brought up by a single parent, from a mixed ethnic background, Obama has definitely been on the receiving end of discrimination and prejudice. He has been judged by the color of his skin, by his name, and, as ridiculous as this may sound, by his travel destinations (namely Indonesia and Kenya). He knows well the stories of darker American times – the history of segregation and the struggle for civil rights. If he allows that knowledge and those memories, that humanity, to penetrate just a little of his policies in dealing with the Palestinians and Israelis, then he might be more effective than past presidents have been in moving peace talks forward.

Still, Israel can rest assured that he will not abandon them. No single man, not even Barack Obama, can change the American political system and dislodge the grip that strong pro-Israel lobbying groups have on the White House. But he can help maneuver it. Signs suggest that he will surround himself with an eclectic ‘brain trust’, a good balance of pragmatism and idealism. In the foreign policy arena, the names of liberal former advisers with experience in the Clinton Administration have been mentioned, such as Dennis Ross and Susan Rice.

Obama has stressed that his priorities will be, first and foremost, domestic ones. However, he cannot ignore the huge security issues facing his country, and therefore, the foreign policy team that he puts together will have a crucial role to play. If Obama truly wants to restore the international community’s faith in the US as a global leader, he must smooth the feathers the Bush Administration has so vigorously ruffled. Ignoring the advice of key allies and showing no respect for a country’s sovereignty (Pakistan and Syria most recently), the single-minded, short-term strategy that Bush has pursued for eight years will need to be changed – drastically. Obama’s multilateralism, on the other hand, is very refreshing. His call for talking with ‘enemies’ rather than boycotting them gives diplomacy priority over war. If, as he says, he wants to win the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims, he will need to promote a practical solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In contrast with Bush’s last ditch efforts to have a peace treaty signed by the end of 2008, many Palestinians are pinning their hopes on the possibility of a new Obama effort.

His pre-campaigning associations, his private comments, his own roots and experiences – these are the straws that Palestinians will clutch at in the coming months. Cynical and jaded they may be, but Palestinians are desperate for any glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel of occupation. Perhaps Obama will act on his mantra of change and make life-changing decisions for the Palestinians.

(Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – on November 5, 2008)

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