- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If the people of the Middle East could vote in the U.S. presidential elections, chances are they would have voted in favor of Sen. Barack Obama over his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, or his political opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain.

But that was last week. In a short few days, much has changed in the delicate juggling act that ties American domestic politicking to the more Machiavellian politics of the Levant, the lands of Arabia and of the Persians.

This week, if the people of the Middle East could vote for the next president of the United States, their choice might not be as clear-cut, though there is one less candidate in the presidential race. This week the people of the Middle East might give their vote to the Republican Party’s contender.

What brought about such a major change of heart and mind in such a short time? As with almost everything that has to do with the Middle East, the reply can be found in the crux of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the Palestinian question. And as with everything that touches the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the answer can be found in one of the top three stumbling blocks obstructing the road to Middle East peace: the city of Jerusalem and its future status.

Both Israelis and Palestinians claim rights to Jerusalem, and both sides want it recognized as their capital.

In a June 4 speech before the most influential pro-Israeli lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Mr. Obama said, if he were elected president in November, his commitment to Israel’s security would be “unshakable.” But it was his stance on Jerusalem, saying the city should remain undivided, that raised the ire of the Palestinians, bringing about immediate and angry reaction.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “rejected” outright Mr. Obama’s statement, calling it “unacceptable,” while Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator to the peace talks, said it would set back negotiations and empower the extremists.

“Jerusalem is one of the files under negotiation. The entire world knows perfectly well that we will never accept a state without [East] Jerusalem [as its capital]. That should be clear,” Mr. Abbas said.

Perhaps in an effort to backtrack and minimize damage with the Arab community, the next day the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee told CNN that ultimately, it was up to the two sides to reach an agreement. “Obviously it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations,” said Mr. Obama.

He tried to justify his position and soften his earlier statement regarding Jerusalem by saying he also might have angered Israelis in pointing out that the Jewish state’s settlement policy has “not been helpful to peace as well.” While Mr. Obama’s criticism of the settlers may well anger some Israelis, it is unlikely to win him back Palestinian support. That is simply not how the Middle East works.

However, a number of Middle East analysts do not take statements made by U.S. presidential candidates too seriously.

Promises to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of the Jewish state have long been offered by several U.S. presidential hopefuls, including George W. Bush. The tactic is intended to win the Jewish vote, but once in the White House campaign promises are quickly overtaken by the reality of facts on the ground and the political complications and setbacks that would ensue from following up on campaign rhetoric.

Commenting on French Radio International, Majid Nehme, editor of Afrique-Asie magazine, said such promises as Washington’s unfaltering support of Israel and Mr. Obama saying he supports the embassy’s relocation have become classic maneuvers in the White House race.

“It has become part of the norm in the electoral proceedings. It is not something that should be taken seriously,” said Majid Nehme.

In the final analysis, what is more likely to emerge is a reversal of policies between the tough line adopted by Mr. McCain and the softer approach preferred by Mr. Obama. A perfect example is how the two men have presented their views regarding the war in Iraq, where Mr. McCain endorses a long-term military engagement and Mr. Obama prefers an early withdrawal of U.S. forces.

However, if elected president, Mr. McCain will realize soon enough how unrealistic it is to expect to maintain 160,000 U.S. military personnel - and quite possibly augment that number - and to establish a number of U.S. bases in Iraq for long periods. As president, he would have to compromise and find an earlier exit for the troops.

Similarly, if elected president, Mr. Obama will understand that an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is just as unrealistic as Mr. McCain’s stated intentions of staying there up to 100 years.

The diktat of the Middle East’s realpolitik undoubtedly will separate campaign rhetoric from feasible policies.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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