Palestinians are feeling the Bern, but not counting on change

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Milwaukee, in early February. (Photo from REUTERS/Jim Young)
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Milwaukee, in early February. (Photo from REUTERS/Jim Young)

Sitting at a cafe with some friends in Ramallah last month I mentioned that I would soon be returning to Seattle for the second time in less than a year. They wondered why I was making the long trip again so soon.

“Well, I am trying to make the best of it,” I responded without too much thought. “My current visa expires soon and who knows if I’ll be ever able to get it again if the Republicans win the White House!”

It was an off-the-cuff comment that underscored a common assumption for Palestinians like me: If a Republican becomes the next U.S. president, things will get worse for us.

Why? A Republican president is likely to strengthen ties to Israel, translating to heightened prejudice and intolerance against Palestinians. If Democrats win, we have a better chance of moving towards a framework that presumes Palestinians deserve the same basic rights as Israelis.

So most of my Palestinian friends and colleagues would be voting Democrat in the November elections if they had the chance.

But what about in the primary?

Bernie and Hillary are both strong candidates, but on the international front, particularly in the Middle East, they differ over several issues: the U.S.’s involvement in Syria, the Iraq invasion in 2003, and the American role in defeating ISIS.

I emailed some other Middle Eastern journalists and activists to get their views and insights about the race between Sanders and Clinton.

Here’s what they had to say:

Nour OdehNour Odeh — Founder & CEO of Connect Communications Consultancy and former Palestinian government spokeswoman

I think it is refreshing to see a candidate like Bernie Sanders who actually insists on talking about domestic policies rather than paying lip service to lobbyists and pressure groups who pay big money for hardline positions against Palestinian aspirations and in support of Israeli occupation policies.

As far as impact on the Middle East, I don’t think that in the end U.S. policy towards the Middle East will see a major change because it is very much institutional and a new president could slightly change the approach but not the policy.

Hillary Clinton has made her stance very clear and it is very disappointing, though not surprising. I believe that Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office will be a setback for the region in so far as the prospects of peace. She is adopting a very hard-line, pro-rightwing Israel line, so it is difficult to see how she could claim balance if she makes it in national elections.

Sanders has non-conventional views on the region overall and he could bring in a different approach to U.S. Middle East policy, though the general lines of policy will stay the same in my opinion. The dynamics could only change in my opinion if the EU decides to take on a role befitting its status and role in the region. This could push the U.S. towards a more practical and positive approach towards the conflict.

Fatima AbdulKarimFatima Abdulkareem — Journalist, script writer and translator based in Ramallah

Bernie has been reserved in speaking about foreign policy and especially the Palestinian-Israeli issue, at this point. Hillary, we’ve known as close to Israel when she served as state secretary.

It’s very easy to say that this is not the same region Hillary dealt with when in office — let alone the comparison with the time of Bill Clinton’s tenure.

Although many are expecting much more of Sanders than anyone else, Republican or Democrat, the fear is of maintaining the Occupation as it remains in place for coming years. Even if Sanders realized that the two-state solution is dead, he might not be able to do much about the one-state solution, because Israel will never be ready to stand in equality and accept the one-man one-vote game.

Reem abdulhamidReem Abdulhameed — Palestinian freelance journalist based in Paris

I think both candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will keep the close friendship between Israel and the U.S., but to different degrees.

Clinton has a hands-on approach in the Middle East. For instance, she wants to pursue regime change in Middle Eastern countries. She also supported the war on Iraq.

She demonstrated throughout her declarations in this campaign, political career and even her book “Hard Choices” her support and desire to maintain strong ties to Israel.

Little is known about Sanders’ foreign policy, particularly regarding the Middle East, Israel and Palestine conflict, although he did defend Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014, but was against the war in Iraq.

I can’t decide yet if either of them is capable of making a structural change in the MENA (Middle East & North Africa Region), particularly in Palestine.

Haneen Al-KhairiHaneen Al-Khairi — Media studies research assistant at American University Beirut, and freelance journalist based in Jerusalem

Whether it’s Clinton or Sanders, when it comes to the Middle East, it doesn’t matter who wins the U.S. presidential election. The U.S.-Israeli relationship is very strong and that’s not going to change.

Clinton is a continuation of Obama’s leadership. While many Americans see Sanders as the only candidate who even brings up the never ending warfare in the Middle East and the militarism in law enforcement, others had acknowledged that his foreign policy experience is limited compared to Clinton’s.

Sanders has criticized Clinton’s decision to support the invasion of Iraq.

However, Arabs shouldn’t be deceived by Sanders’ foreign policy decision’s as he openly acknowledged his support for continuing war in the Middle East, calling on Saudi Arabia and Turkey to take the lead and provide ground troops in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, he defended Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza in 2014.

Therefore, both Clinton and Sanders have the same plan for the Middle East. The only difference between Clinton and Sanders on Arab issues is that Clinton wants to see the military interventions in the Arab countries led by the U.S. military troops while Sanders wants the same interventions to happen but by using Saudi and Turkish troops.

Mothanna GharaibehMothanna Gharaibeh — Jordanian progressive activist

The U.S. has done a lot here. They caused a disaster in Iraq that even Republicans are shy to defend.

But the major change I hope to see in the American politics in the Middle East is reducing the money they spend here.

They spend too much money on wars and financing the killing of people. If they spend a portion of that on development and peace, a big difference can be made.

In 2014 Israel killed 1400 humans — women, children and old men. This killing was financed by American tax payers’ money, by the $3 billion the U.S. sends as military support to Israel. This money could cover the cost for nine million American citizens in the Obama health care program and guarantee them a better life.

The question is who will continue the transformation journey that Obama has started but not yet completed?

I believe Sanders is the best bet. But the challenge is, would he be able to have the same charisma and explain what his vision the way Obama did?

Hassan al afif_Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D. — Political analyst based in California

If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she would succeed in creating good relationship with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

Philip Weiss, the editor of Mondoweiss claims that Hillary is known for her support of Israel to the extent that Obama hired her as secretary of state to lend him credibility with the Israeli government and its U.S. supporters, “because of her credentials with the Israeli lobby.”

Hillary has empathy for the Palestinians, but with the Israelis, she has real affinity and personal friendships. This was reflected in her book “Hard Choices,” where she disagreed with her husband on calling the settlements “illegal.”

She formed close relations with the Israelis during her husband’s tenure and she, her husband and daughter have been the recipients of millions of dollars from the U.S. Israel’s supporters allied with the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for speeches; and she received more millions of contributions to her campaign.

According to the former U.S. State Department official Aaron Miller, Bill Clinton and Hillary are so impressed with Israel’s history and achievements that most likely she will defend the realities created by Israel, including the construction of settlements.

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