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The US democrats and Palestine.

Any hopes that George W. Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2004 presidential election might prove a more balanced mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict seem to have been dispelled in recent months, as the leading candidates for the party's nomination have competed for the mantle of most pro-Israel. This ritual contest reflects the sad reality that in order to reach the White House no serious contender can afford to question unequivocal US support for Israel.

After trading blows on the issue in September and October, top-tier Democratic candidates have emerged with a consensus on Israel-Palestine that is firmly in line with the Bush administration's pro-Likud stance. Governor Howard Dean, General Wesley Clark, and Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman have agreed, de facto, on several basic principals:

First and foremost they've decided to attack George W. Bush only for his lack of "engagement" on the conflict, (with Dean, for example, promising to send President Clinton to the region as his permanent envoy); they have expressed support for a two-stare solution but insist that the US cannot "impose" peace; Palestinian "terror" is held exclusively responsible for the failure of the Road Map; Arafat is not considered a negotiating partner; and Israel's concrete wall, or "separation fence," is a temporary "defensive" measure.

Structural Obstacles to Peace

The pro-Israel positions of the candidates are unlikely to be altered throughout either the primaries, which begin on 19 January, in Iowa and run through August, or during the election in November, largely because the candidates will have to take the significant Jewish vote in key states such as California, Florida and New York and Evangelical, Christian Zionists in the South into account. Pro-Israel financial support is also crucial, especially since Democrats are competing with the superhuman fundraising abilities of George W. Bush, who is shooting for a record $170m.

Arab-Americans, while of increasing demographic importance in so-called swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, still don't have the political clout to compete with supporters of Israel. In what was seen as a step forward, they were courted by Bush in 2000 after Bob Dole refused to even meet with Arab-Americans in 1996. During the 2000 campaign Bush delicately declared his support for a Palestinian state, as well as his opposition to "secret evidence" against terrorism suspects. Thus a majority of Arab-Americans voted for Bush rather than Democrat Al Gore, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of Israel, who Connecticut's Senator Lieberman, a frequent sponsor of blatantly pro-Israel legislation who has campaigned tirelessly to get the US embassy moved to Jerusalem, as his running mate. While 9/11 complicated both the Israel-Palestine questions, and the issue of civil liberties, the Arab-Americans' political gambit is generally adjudged to have been a failure.

The ability of the Arab lobby to influence the Middle East agenda in Washington has proved limited. Congress still passes legislation hostile to Arab interests by stunning margins. In May 2002, for example, the 94-2 Senate vote for a resolution, authored by Lieberman, declaring support for Israel in the aftermath of Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's scorched earth invasion of the West Bank. Lopsided votes like that may have something to do with the factor that during the last election cycle pro-Israel Political Action Commitees (PAC's) raised $3,015,086 for members of Congress while pro-Arab groups raised only $30,350.

During the election itself, the Arab-Israeli conflict will likely become a non-issue, as the Democrats will face the most pro-Israel incumbent in US history. Thus any candidate hoping to secure the Arab or Muslim vote will focus on events in Iraq and the civil liberties restrictions in the USA Patriot Act. Encuuragingly for the Democrats, around 45% of Arabs polled now support a Democratic candidate while 34% support Bush.

A Long Road Ahead

A change in occupant of the Oval Office alone is unlikely to result in meaningful progress in Arab-Israeli negotiations. Although the Democrats' emphasis on "engaging" the conflict could betray a willingness to take chances they have been disinclined to reveal before securing office, it is unclear whether any of them will be willing to expend the tremendous political capital needed to challenge the inertia of US deferment to Israel's judgment, without a truly evenhanded interlocutor, a change in the White House may well mean a continuation of the status quo.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Fahim, Ashraf
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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