Palestinians give cool reception to U.S. debate

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JERUSALEM — Palestinians complained Tuesday that the Mideast peace process barely got a mention in the final U.S. presidential campaign debate, saying American standing in the Middle East will be doomed without a greater effort to resolve the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Such sentiments were shared regionwide, as officials and analysts noted that President Barack Obama and Republican rival MittRomney expressed few differences on key issues such as Iran’s suspect nuclear program, the war in Afghanistan and the tumultuous changes of the Arab spring.

“It’s true that Obama doesn’t have a coherent policy toward the Arab world but neither does Romney,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “What we saw last night is depressing lack of new ideas for U.S. policy in the Middle East.”

While neither Obama nor Romney spoke much about the Israel-Palestinian conflict during Monday night’s debate, both men voiced heavy support for Israel‘s security in an apparent gesture to influential Jewish voters.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said he understood the candidates are wary about discussing the sensitive conflict just two weeks before the election.

“But it should be clear to the United States that without solving the Palestinians-Israeli conflict, there will be no success for American policy in the Middle East,” he said.

The Palestinians have grown disillusioned with Obama, who took office promising to make the peace process a top priority and to take a tough stand against Israeli settlements in occupied territories.

Instead, Obama failed to persuade Israel to halt settlement construction, and substantive peace efforts have remained frozen throughout his term. The Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table without a settlement freeze, saying continued Israeli construction in occupied territories they claim is a sign of bad faith.

At the same time, the Palestinians are deeply wary of Romney, who declared earlier this year that the Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever” in peace.

Romney’s long friendship with hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his alliance with Jewish-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a strong Netanyahu supporter, have further raised their suspicions.

During Monday’s debate, the two candidates seemed to be trying to outdo each other in their support for Israel‘s security, mentioning the threats posed to the Jewish state by Iran, the civil war in neighboring Syria and militant groups armed with rockets.

Romney briefly criticized Obama’s failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts but gave no clue as to how he would promote peace. It was the only time in the debate that the Palestinians were even mentioned.

“It was a sin of omission, and it was clearly the elephant in the room,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“They are talking about peace, stability, democracy, freedom and human rights, and they both didn’t touch the Palestinian question, which is the main issue in the region that’s the key to peace and embodies the need for human rights and role of law and justice,” she said.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev declined comment on the debate.

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