- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008


If Europeans could vote in the U.S. presidential election, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, would be guaranteed a victory in November.

Indeed, the campaign took a strange turn with the two leading candidates extending the usual campaign trail, typically restricted to the 48 mainland states, to include stops in the Middle East and Europe.

While Sen. John McCain’s past visits to Iraq unfolded practically without notice, in contrast, last week’s grand tour of the Middle East and European cities by Mr. Obama was carried out with great pomp and circumstance.

And although he is not yet president of the United States, Mr. Obama was treated to a reception usually reserved for a serving president.

Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, struggled to compete with the headlines his Democratic rival was grabbing by meeting with former President George H.W. Bush - hardly an earth-shattering event - and later with the Dalai Lama, a sure way to kick off a presidency on poor terms with China, a rising world power.

Mr. Obama, in the meantime, demonstrated he had what it takes to be president of the world’s remaining superpower with stops in Baghdad, Kabul, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Berlin, Paris and London.

In meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr. Obama looked and felt very much at ease, winning the confidence of his foreign hosts and the hearts of many Europeans.

Understandably, the few hours Mr. Obama spent in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories may not be enough to offer a full understanding of the complexity of the Middle East’s problems, but it will provide him with a window through which he can begin to better grasp the situation.

And like many of his predecessors, the junior senator from Illinois promised the leaders of the Middle East that he would work from Day One, if he becomes president, to solve the Arab-Israeli crisis. President Bush made a similar promise - albeit several years into his second term - to the Palestinians that they would have an independent state by the time he left office.

That promise, of course, is highly unlikely to be kept, with about 175 days remaining in his presidency.

If, indeed, Mr. Obama wins the presidency, he will have no shortage of crises left over from the Bush administration to tackle: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuing saga of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the war on terror (hopefully President Obama would choose to call it something else).

As president, Mr. Obama also will have to delve into the domestic disarray he will inherit: the plunging real estate market brought about by the subprime scandal, inflation, unemployment, health care reform, and all the other headaches that go with the job of being president of the United States.

It therefore would be quite natural for Mr. Obama to forget, as many of his predecessors have, the question of Palestine and the promises he made on the campaign trail.

Hopefully, one of the important lessons that Mr. Obama would have learned on his lightning tour of the Middle East and Europe is the central role the Palestinian issue plays in the overall geopolitical structure in the Middle East and beyond, and the degree to which the unresolved question of Palestine continues to attract anti-American sentiment in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Osama bin Laden can hope for no better recruiting poster to advance his cause than news of another Palestinian youth felled by Israeli bullets. And the tens of thousands of unemployed, undereducated youths idling away in Palestinian refugee camps scattered around the Arab world offer extremist Islamic organizations such as al Qaeda an ideal, unlimited pool of potential recruits who can be easily enticed with promises of financial compensation for their families in return for their “martyrdom.”

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, such as Ain el Helweh in the south and Nahr el Bared in the north, have become havens for Islamist organizations affiliated with al Qaeda.

During the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s these young Palestinian refugees provided resources for the Palestinian resistance. Today, they have become potential recruits for the Islamists who have replaced to a large degree the traditional Palestinian resistance groups in the refugee camps.

That is the primary reason why a settlement of the Palestinian question remains of the utmost importance.

One can only hope that Mr. Obama’s brief visits to the Middle East were a bit more than just whistle-stops on his campaign tour.

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