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Palestine and US Presidential Candidates

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • April 05, 2016

    The race for the November 2016 US Presidential Elections has already heated up. The primaries of both the major political parties, i.e. the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, are on, and already over in 40 states. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernard Sanders are battling it out in the Democratic Party primaries for the party`s presidential nomination. Billionaire businessman Donald Trump, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Governor John Kasich (in the earlier part of the campaign), have been vying among themselves for the Republican presidential ticket. In the course of the campaign, many issues of national importance in USA and of international relevance to that country are being discussed and publicly debated. The issue of Palestine – the multi-dimensional contestation between the Palestinians and Israelis, the acceptability or otherwise of the Palestinians` demand for statehood, their human rights in Israel-controlled enclaves in the West Bank, and Israel`s policies in these matters – have figured in the campaign discourse. There is, however, no consensus on these issues. The basic point which has emerged is that none of the candidates referred to above has articulated a clear and unconditionally supportive long-term view in favour of the Palestinian cause.

    Most tellingly, the left-wing Israeli newspaper – Haaretz, recently opined that the Palestinians have given up on the US presidential candidates. Palestinians nostalgically tend to recall that it was President Barrack Obama who came closest to advocating their interests when, during his visit to Israel in 2013, he urged the Israelis “to look at the world through their (Palestinians`) eyes.” Obama had then stated that “it was not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, but living their entire lives with the pressure of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day.” Between the two Democratic candidates – Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders, Sanders seems more open towards the Palestinian cause. For Sanders, his Jewish background is more a matter of ethnicity than religion, although he seems cautious not to articulate the finer points or contours of his views in the matter. Some have rationalized the Sanders stance as consequent on his intention to keep domestic issues centre-stage. In contrast, Clinton seems to have gradually moved towards an uncompromising position in support of the Netanyahu Government’s basic interests, which include defence of the Israeli state with secure borders and adjoining buffer zones under its military control, non-dismantlement of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and assertion of Israel`s rights towards retention of control over the whole of Jerusalem and eventually shifting the state capital from Tel Aviv to the so-called `eternal capital` of Jerusalem.

    The impact of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – a strong pro-Israeli lobby – on the candidates has been a factor in US domestic politics and continues to be considerable even now. AIPAC`s influence on the Republicans appears to be stronger than among Democrats. This is evident from the speeches made by most of the Republican candidates at the 23 March AIPAC meeting, pandering to the pro-Israeli lobby. While Trump has described Israel as a strategic ally, he has not indicated his position on Palestine`s autonomy. And he has castigated Palestinians who eulogise those amongst them who murder Jews. Cruz has gone to the extent of refusing to accept Palestine`s existence since 1948. Cruz has also declared that, as president, he will not be neutral in the Israel-Palestine dispute. A recent Gallup Poll shows that 58 per cent of Democrats and 26 per cent of Republicans are relatively more supportive of Palestine`s statehood. The same survey also indicates that support for the status quoist policies of Israel is less among the youth, blacks and Latinos. In the light of this political milieu, it is but natural that the Republican candidates would be less responsive to Palestinian issues and their concerns.

    So far as the Democrats are concerned, the posture adopted by Clinton at the March 2016 AIPAC meeting has turned out to be a disappointment for the Palestinians. Clinton has urged Palestinian leaders to stop inciting violence and celebrating terrorists killed as martyrs, without going into the genesis and existing causes of the violence. She has advocated a 10-year defence arrangement with Israel, thus underscoring her commitment to that country`s security. As if to complete her matrix of engagements on the Israel-Palestine issues with a semblance of even-handedness, Clinton has stated that Palestinians should be able to give themselves their own state, in peace and dignity in a negotiated two-state agreement, without mentioning the countervailing commitments required on the part of Israel. If at all some resonance of the cause of Palestine can be expected, it is from Sanders, considering his support base among the youth, particularly students, and his political liberalism. Though Sanders has not been very forthcoming of late vis-à-vis his Middle-East or Israel-Palestine policies, his website has called for an end to the blockade of Gaza, and a cessation of the development of settlements on Palestinian land. Notwithstanding the Gallup poll trend, the main presidential contestants are unlikely to ignore the pro-Israeli pressure groups like AIPAC, who have the financial and organizational resources within and outside the US establishment to fund and pressure the presidential candidates. In this context, it is important to highlight that Sanders perhaps stands a better chance of overcoming, or rather not being too susceptible to the pro-Israeli lobbies, owing to his campaign`s success in raising substantial funds through private contributions.

    Whichever party candidate wins the forthcoming US presidential elections, the next administration will have to temper its policies eventually as per the exigencies of US interests and the interplay of issues and policies of the Middle East countries. The 45th President assuming office in January 2017, despite the lobbies which facilitated his or her electoral campaign and pre-election policies, may not be able to totally ignore the conflict in Palestine, and the related salient issues. However, none of the candidates, except perhaps Sanders, may have a political commitment to resolve the Palestine issue on a permanent basis within a two-nation (Israel-Palestine) framework that reckons with the Palestinians’ inalienable human rights in a substantively autonomous state while guaranteeing Israel`s right to exist as a constitutional democracy. But the question is, will Sanders be able to get the Democratic Party`s presidential nomination and eventually win the presidency? Even if Sanders were to emerge as a running mate and eventually become the Vice President in a Democratic administration, Palestinians may see a glimmer of hope.

    The author is a former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts, and currently Adviser to a State Government.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.