x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Palestinian-Americans hope for an Obama victory

Some view US election as crucial, while others are less buoyant.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // As Americans today go to cast their votes for their next president, thousands of Palestinian-Americans in the occupied Palestinian territories will already have had their say. Among Palestinians generally, two attitudes toward the elections seem to prevail. On the one hand, many see the vote as potentially crucial for the world and America. On the other, few hold out much hope that, whatever the result, Palestinians will gain much.

For Palestinian-Americans, the two positions seem to go together. "I think it's one of the most important elections in my lifetime, in terms of what is needed to fix not just the global economic situation but how people and countries deal with each other," said Kareem Shehadeh, a lawyer and the chairman of the board of the American-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce. The Palestinian issue, however, is "very low on the agenda" of any new administration, said Mr Shehadeh. "In 2009, I don't think either party will have any real effect on the situation here."

Basil Ayyish, a telecommunications professional, said from a Palestinian perspective the election was insignificant. "American foreign policy is so entrenched in the Israeli narrative and Zionist objectives that I don't think any president will change that." Nevertheless, Mr Ayyish also called the election "vitally important". "For Americans and the international community it's very important, because it will help set the tone for decades to come." No organised attempt has been made by either the Obama or McCain campaigns to solicit the votes of eligible voters in the West Bank.

According to figures from the US Embassy, nearly 80,000 US citizens live in the West Bank and Gaza, though that includes Jewish settlers. The number of Palestinian-Americans is estimated at around 40,000. The community is a fairly significant one because of its affluence. Palestinians sought their fortunes in America both before and after 1948. In the 1990s, many returned to help build what they thought would become a Palestinian state. Between Ramallah and Nablus lies Dear Dibwan, a village of large villas built almost exclusively with American money brought back by those who returned. Today, with the political situation in disarray, the village lies almost empty for much of the year.

Those who remain have kept a keen eye on the presidential elections, however, and most appear to hope for a Barack Obama victory, regardless of the impact on Palestinians. "We hope that the trend Obama is bringing will help change some of the ideas and concepts that have prevailed in the White House over the past eight years," said Mr Shehadeh. John McCain is viewed with suspicion because he is seen as representing continuity with the current administration, universally unpopular with Palestinians.

"I think a McCain administration will most likely carry on some of the policies that the current administration is advocating, whether domestically or internationally," said Hani Murad, who works in a United Nations agency. "An Obama administration I think? I hope? will change course and have a more rational understanding of the American interest and global issues in general." Nevertheless, Mr Obama does not escape criticism, and not only for his attempts at wooing the pro-Israel vote. Mr Ayyish recalled a McCain rally at which the Republican contender defended Mr Obama from a heckler calling him "an Arab" by countering that the Democratic candidate was "a decent family man".

"Rather than saying 'so what', this just lent credence to the Arab-baiting of this campaign. Part of the attack on Obama is that he is somehow less than an American, because of his foreign name and foreign connections." But Mr Ayyish said Mr Obama had not dealt well with the negative campaigning, especially on the issue of his personal relationship with Rashid Khalidi, the prominent Palestinian-American academic, with whom he was at university.

"Obama hasn't dispelled this issue the way I wish he would. The fact that Khalidi is Palestinian is not something he should be criticised for," Mr Ayyish said. Mr Khalidi, a professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University in New York, has served as an adviser to Palestinian diplomats. The race issue, said Mr Murad, was not only about Mr Obama being an African-American, but also about his father's Muslim roots and the fact that he has an Arab middle name.

"Had Obama been purely African Christian, his colour would still have been an issue," Mr Murad said. The race factor, he said, was an important reason why Mr Obama was not further ahead in the opinion polls. Mr Ayyish said he was "shocked" that the race is as close as it is. Mr Shehadeh, meanwhile, said anything but an Obama victory would be a "disaster". "If Sarah Palin can become a president, I can become a president."