WASHINGTON - The guests at Joshua Neirman's house in a northwestern suburb of Washington, D.C. came together on Monday to watch the third and final debate between President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney. In addition to snack foods, bingo cards were on hand featuring the faces of the two candidates and squares to be marked whenever one of them mentioned a specific term or issue.
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Some 20 people, Jews and non-Jews, between the ages of 20 and 60 were present. Disappointment set in when it became clear that the candidates were not going to mention most of the terms and issues and instead were focusing on mentioning one word, repeatedly: "Israel." The terms "1967 borders," "Palestinian state," "my friend Bibi," "two-state solution," "settlements," and "thrown under the wheels of the bus" (Romney's description of Obama's Israel policy) didn't come up at all.
Among this heterogeneous group, one of many that answered the call of the left-leaning lobby group J Street to gather to watch the debate, were a young lawyer of Palestinian origin, Omar Shehabi, and an older peace activist from Egypt, Moustafa Soliman. Both seemed disappointed that in the 90-minute debate neither candidate had bothered to delve deeply into the peace issue. "The two-state solution wasn't mentioned at all," Shehabi said. "It means that the Palestinians right now are behind Iran, behind Libya, behind Egypt, and that's distressing. The fact that the candidates mentioned Israel over and over, ignoring the conflict, means we are losing relevance in this conversation. They sparred over who would support Israel best vis-a-vis Iran. I also don't want to see war. If Iran uses nuclear weapons against Israel, we die too. I don't want to see a nuclear Iran. But to see the Palestinian issue dropped down beneath Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon?"
According to Soliman, the Egyptian-American co-executive director of the foundation Arab-Jewish Truck to Peace, "They think that by talking about the two-state solution they are going to lose the Jewish vote? It's a big mistake, really. I have many Jewish friends who are for the two-state solution. I was disappointed President Obama didn't follow up when Romney mentioned briefly peace - probably he didn't have anything to say. For the last two years there has been no official meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In that sense, I was disappointed with the debate. Maybe it's all political maneuvering, and I hope after the elections they'll start pushing for peace."
Ortal Beeri, an Israeli State Department Fellow with Search For Common Ground who dropped in, shrugged her shoulders at the face-off between Obama and Romney over Israel, saying it was no great surprise to her because they were speaking to Jewish voters.
Neirman said the Americans were not single-issue voters, and that Israel doesn't figure centrally when Americans go to the ballot box. He responded angrily to the idea that his vote could be bought by mentioning Israel more than 30 times during the debate.
The party went on smoothly, the guests, gathered around the screen, cheering or groaning with disappointment to the candidates' statements, as if they were watching a football game. One of the women was celebrating her birthday and as soon as the debate was over the group serenaded her.
Afterward, a conference call took place between J Street's president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and the guests at the other parties J Street had organized across the United States. Ben-Ami said he didn't know if there had ever been a debate between presidential candidates that had mentioned Israel so much, and that he was glad Romney had adopted the Republican mainstream position and had gravitated away from the Neo-Con position a la former Vice President Dick Cheney.