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Peace process fails to figure in US poll

Although US operations in Iraq and Bush's war on terrorism have made foreign policy more prominent for American voters than at any time since the Vietnam war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has again been relegated to the sidelines of this year's presidential election, many analysts say.

Last Modified: 29 Sep 2004 16:58 GMT
President Bush greets Muslim voters on the campaign trail

Although US operations in Iraq and Bush's war on terrorism have made foreign policy more prominent for American voters than at any time since the Vietnam war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has again been relegated to the sidelines of this year's presidential election, many analysts say.

The peace process has never been a central component of US presidential campaigns, but there was reason to believe that, post-9/11, it might have become a more salient aspect of the political discourse. By almost all accounts, it has not.

A July study by the Pew Research Centre showed that nearly 90% of Americans believed protecting the country from terrorism to be a top priority in the election, greater than any other foreign policy issue.

At the same time, a number of Middle East political experts say negotiating a fair and balanced resolution for Israel and Palestine would reduce the anti-Americanism that is blamed for fuelling armed resistance in the Arab/Muslim world.

Even the independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks cited US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an important factor in the so-called war on terror.

Low priority

Yet only three in ten Americans are concerned about the peace process, according to the Pew poll. More than a dozen issues, including global warming, US business interests abroad and international drug trafficking ranked higher.

The fact that so many Americans are preoccupied by terrorism while few pay attention to what analysts view as a crucial diplomatic front in combating violence, in part, reflects the lack of public understanding of the issue, several experts say.

"It shows that the American public is ill-informed about the conflict, which is a reflection of how the media covers it and the poor leadership by our elected officials," said Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs.

Neither George Bush nor John Kerry has devoted a significant amount of time on the campaign trail to espousing their positions on the conflict.

"There has been almost no discussion so far," said Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University. "But that's par for the course."

Sidelined

Nevertheless, in an election year in which foreign policy has gained more traction than usual, some experts say it has been disheartening to witness the lack of attention paid to an issue they consider vital to US interests.

Candidate Kerry is said to fear
losing support from Jewish base

"I think it's very disappointing that what is probably the most critical foreign policy issue in the Middle East has not been given the prominence it deserves because the candidates are afraid to address it," Wilcox said.

Other analysts say the situation is simply a reflection of an issue that has traditionally had limited reach with voters.

"You are talking about a relatively niche issue," said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a Washington-based advocacy group. "It is important to a couple of communities."

Neither candidate wants to risk losing the Jewish-American vote by making potentially unpopular statements, Roth says.

Kerry, in particular, cannot afford to alienate Jewish voters, who are considered a vital part of his base support.

"It has been a deliberate strategy on the part of the Kerry campaign not to challenge anything the Bush campaign has said or done [on the peace process] because [Bush's] positions are popular with the American Jewish community," Roth said.

Israeli support

Both Bush and Kerry have made statements supporting Israel's construction of its barrier and Ariel Sharon government's position against the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Both Bush and Kerry approve
of Israel's barrier

Bush devoted a section of his recent UN address to the conflict, calling on Israel to freeze settlement activities in the West Bank and urging the Palestinian leadership to end corruption and cut all ties with militant groups.

However, the longstanding view in the Middle East that successive US administrations have a pro-Israel bias has exacerbated anti-American sentiments and made it easier for armed organisations to recruit new members, Wilcox said.

"If there is anything that antagonises Arabs and Muslims and increases hatred toward the United States, it is the perception that we sympathise with Israel and have no interest in Palestinian issues," he said.

Yet the costs and casualties generated by the war in Iraq have monopolised public attention and media coverage, Brown says.

"There are American troops and lots of money on the line [in Iraq] and there's none in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.

In the end, the peace process may be the type of complex, long-term foreign policy issue that is beyond the scope of short sound bites and the simple themes that have come to define contemporary electoral politics.

"If you are talking about a multi-year, multi-pronged solution to a conflict, that is not really what American presidential elections are about," says Brown.

Source:
Aljazeera
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