Many foreign policy experts in Washington agree that finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key battle in winning the war on terrorism and reducing anti-American sentiments in the Middle East.
Few analysts, however, expect the peace process to be a top issue in this year’s presidential race.
Major candidates are generally reluctant to highlight the subject in their campaigns for two reasons, experts say.
Firstly, the dispute over the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a highly contentious wedge issue among certain constituencies, namely Christian conservatives, Arab Americans and Jewish Americans.
Many presidential candidates fear making a misstep on such a volatile issue that could cost them votes in a close election, says Phillip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs.
“That is the conventional wisdom of American politics,” Wilcox says. “It’s a custom that has been observed by both Democrats and Republicans.”
Secondly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been a priority for the general electorate, and polls suggest the issue will not be a major factor in the 2004 race, one polling expert says.
“This has never been a central issue in American national campaigns and I don’t think it will be any different in this election cycle,” says a spokesman for a major pro-Israel organisation.
Neither President Bush nor the remaining Democratic candidates have devoted a great deal of time to discussing the conflict in their campaigns thus far. Bush chose not to mention the issue in his state of the union message and the topic rarely comes up in the Democratic presidential debates.
“I think the safe thing for the candidates to do is to express a general support for Israel and the peace process”
Americans for Peace Now,
a Jewish advocacy group
A muted approach to the subject may be the logical strategy in such a competitive battle for the White House, says Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish advocacy group.
“I think the safe thing for the candidates to do is to express a general support for Israel and the peace process and to not get into the issue much beyond that,” Roth says.
Faith and fortune
While the general public may not view the peace process as a priority, the issue resonates strongly with certain religious and ethnic groups whose votes are coveted by both political parties, he says.
“I think it’s basically a niche issue that is very important to certain communities,” he says.
While Jewish Americans were long thought by some groups to be the driving force behind US policies vis-a-vis the Israelis and Palestinians, many Washington insiders dismiss such notions as a political myth.
George Bush is eager to keep
his conservative base on side
More important to the president’s re-election campaign are Christian conservatives, says Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Evangelical Christians, many of whom believe the Jews must control the holy land of Israel in order to bring about the second coming of the messiah, are committed to a staunchly pro-Israeli agenda.
“They are very supportive of the Israeli government and are against any policies that would ask the Israeli government to do anything difficult,” Kipper says, adding that the estimated 40 million Christian conservatives constitute a large portion of the president’s base.
The Bush team is unlikely to risk rocking the political boat during a tough re-election fight, according to Wilcox.
“They are worried about offending that community - that community that might stay at home and not work to get out the vote,” he says.
In addition, both sides are worried about offending key campaign contributors for whom the issue is a priority, several experts say.
“Money is probably more important than votes”
Foundation for Middle East Peace
“Money is probably more important than votes,” Wilcox says.
Bush’s campaign headquarters did not return a telephone call for this story, nor did the Washington, DC campaign office for Senator John Kerry, the current frontrunner in the Democratic primary.
Instead, a Kerry official emailed a press statement from the senator condemning a recent bombing in Jerusalem and expressing support for Israel’s construction of a separation barrier.
The candidates are unlikely to propose any major initiatives as part of their campaign platforms, in part, because of the fluid nature of the situation, says Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and the US ambassador to Israel from 1997 to 1999.
Analysts argue that solving the
conflict would aid US interests
“I think part of the reason is that nobody knows what to do,” Walker says. “Nobody has any brilliant ideas about it.”
Many Middle East analysts say the Israeli-Palestinian issue was inextricably linked to the war on terrorism, and that a credible resolution of the conflict would be a significant victory for US interests in the region.
Kipper says the US would “pay a price for the perception in the Arab world that the US could do more to push for a solution, but chooses not to do so because of bias toward Israel.”
The fact that many American voters, particularly Republicans, view the war on terrorism as a critical issue in the 2004 election, makes it somewhat surprising that such a small portion of the electorate appears concerned about the Middle East peace process, experts say.
Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center, says voter surveys show “there isn’t broad public interest” in the issue.
Although foreign policy rarely tops the list of voter concerns, some pundits predicted the attacks of September 11 2001 would change that.
While the war in Iraq is seen to be a significant factor in the election, many Americans link that issue with the fight against terrorism, something they don’t do with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Walker says.
“People haven’t really examined the foundation of the war on terrorism,” he says.