Palestinians see Obama as agent of change

Palestinians see Obama as agent of change

JERUSALEM — With Barack Obama touring the Middle East and leading in the polls ahead of the U.S. presidential election this fall, many Palestinians are beginning to hope that the Democratic candidate might really represent change they can believe in. And some Israelis are starting to fear exactly the same thing.


Mr. Obama arrived in Jerusalem yesterday at the tail end of a “fact-finding” trip that has already taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq and Jordan. He was immediately thrust into the labyrinthine politics of the region when a Palestinian man driving a front-end loader went on a rampage, overturning cars and ramming a bus just a few hundred metres from the hotel where Mr. Obama was supposed to spend the night.


Several cars were crushed and 16 Israelis were injured before the driver – a 22-year-old resident of East Jerusalem – was shot dead by a policeman. It was the second such attack in Jerusalem, with a construction vehicle used as a weapon for wreaking mass havoc, in less than three weeks.


Mr. Obama quickly issued a condemnation of the attack and said he would “always support Israel in confronting terrorism and pursuing lasting peace and security.” But while the words were strong, few expect Mr. Obama to continue the Middle East policies of President George W. Bush, who is seen as perhaps the most pro-Israeli U.S. president in history. Many here are anticipating – some with excitement, some with dread – a new tone from the White House if Mr. Obama defeats Republican nominee John McCain this November.



 Much of Mr. Obama”s whirlwind trip to the Holy Land will be aimed at tackling two of his perceived weaknesses as a candidate: a lack of foreign-policy experience and the suspicion, in some corners of the U.S Jewish community, that he would undo the United States“s historic support for Israel. Mr. Obama”s packed agenda for today includes meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, as well as a trip to the battle-scarred town of Sderot, on the edge of the Gaza Strip.


But unlike Mr. McCain, who visited the region in March, Mr. Obama will also make a trip to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Obama told a press conference in Amman yesterday that the U.S. backing of Israel was not going to change. But he said that, if elected, he would make sure to weigh Palestinian concerns as well.


“What I think can change is the ability of the United States government and a United States president to be actively engaged with the peace process and to be concerned and recognize the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now.”


Such talk has already made a fan out of 27-year-old Omar Jibril, who, in his Ramallah apartment on Thursday evenings, gathers with a small group of friends informally known as the Barack Obama Fan Club. They swap articles they”ve come across on the Internet about their political hero, debate how the campaign is going, and dream about how much better their world will become if Mr. Obama wins the presidency.


“People are usually worried when a change is taking place, but this time people are optimistic because of the coming of Obama,” Mr. Jibril said. “People will be so happy if he becomes president. Palestinians are desperate after eight years under George Bush.”


Part of the appeal, Mr. Jibril says, is the belief that Mr. Obama – as a black American – will empathize with the plight of the 3.7 million Palestinians who have been living under Israeli military occupation for the past four decades. That his middle name is Hussein – a fact that spawned Internet rumours falsely claiming that Mr. Obama is a Muslim – and that he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia gives hope here that he will at least have a better understanding of the Islamic world than Mr. Bush.


It”s not just the Ramallah fan club. Palestinian political commentators have been effusive in their praise for the Democratic nominee and Mr. Obama has even won the unwelcome endorsement of the militant Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and is branded a “terrorist” organization by the U.S. State Department.


“I”m 100-per-cent sure that American policy will be totally different [if Mr. Obama wins the presidency]. Maybe not perfectly even-handed, but different. Obama will be fair to us,” Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, told The Globe and Mail recently. The United States currently has no relations with Hamas, which dealt Mr. Bush”s “freedom agenda” a heavy blow in 2006 when it won the Palestinian legislative elections.


Mr. Obama has already gotten a taste of how treacherous the Middle East can be for even the most nimble politician when he said in a speech last month to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel. The remark provoked condemnations across the Muslim world and a rebuke from Mr. Abbas, who said the future of Jerusalem, which Palestinians also claim as their capital, can only be decided in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Mr. Obama has since said he misspoke, and meant only to say that the city should be “cohesive and coherent” and not divided with fences and walls like it was between 1948 and 1967.


That misstep, along with Mr. Obama”s stated willingness to negotiate directly with Iran, has inspired rising unease among Israelis and, more importantly to Mr. Obama”s campaign, some Jewish-American voters.


“We are concerned,” said Jeff Daube, director of the Israel office of the Zionist Organization of America, which helped organize a small protest outside Mr. Obama”s hotel last night. “Senator Obama does not have very much foreign policy experience, and when I look down his list of foreign-policy advisers, I get very concerned. Many of those advisers have a history of pressuring Israel.”


Among those travelling to Jerusalem with Mr. Obama were Dennis Ross, who was Bill Clinton”s special envoy to the Middle East, and Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt. Both men are themselves Jewish, but are seen as critics of the Bush administration”s zealously pro-Israel stand. Mr. Ross was one of the chief architects of the failed Camp David peace efforts in 2000.


Hillel Shenker, vice-president of the Israel chapter of Democrats Abroad, said the notion that Mr. Bush has been a great friend of Israel is misguided, since the war in Iraq and escalating tensions with Iran have actually made Israel less secure than it was eight years ago.


On the other hand, he said, Mr. Obama could prove to be the real friend of Israel if he used the warm reception he received in the Arab world to help bring a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. “For the foreseeable future, every American president will retain a commitment to Israel“s security and economic needs,” Mr. Shenker said. “But if you want to be an effective [peace] broker, you have to have the confidence of both sides.”


But Mr. Obama himself was careful to play down such expectations yesterday. “It”s unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region,” he said.