The debate between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry went on for 90 minutes on Thursday night and all 90 minutes were devoted to foreign affairs. Israel was mentioned in seven words by the president and in five by Kerry, when both agreed that stability and freedom in Iraq would contribute to its security. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not mentioned at all, nor was the phrase "Palestinian state," let alone was there any presentation of a vision to settle the conflict or even make a general promise to advance peace. And that's in the debate about foreign policy.
The candidates can't be blamed. They didn't set the agenda for the electorate; they only respond to it, and the voters are far from being interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An August poll by the Council on Foreign Relations asked the respondents to list their priorities in foreign affairs when it comes to choosing the next president. Naturally, defense against terror came out first, with 88 percent of those questioned saying it was the most important issue. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was 17 on a list of 19 issues, with only 28 percent believing it should be a priority of the next administration.
Even American Jewry isn't demanding that American leaders deal with the problem. A poll by the National Jewish Democratic Council asked Jewish voters what the most important issues were for their choice of a president. Israel came in sixth, after social security and education.
To a large extent, last Thursday's debate expressed the mood of the American public when it comes to Middle East affairs. America's biggest foreign problem is Iraq and nobody is left with any patience for the old Middle East, which has exhausted all the American presidents. The two candidates arrived at the face-off sober about just how much can be moved in the region.
All it takes is to look at the people around them - the head of the team preparing the president for the debates is James Baker, the first Bush president's secretary of state, and John Kerry's foreign policy adviser is Madeleine Albright, Clinton's secretary of state. Both can tell their new bosses about the chances of achieving an agreement in the Middle East and how much anguish is to be found on the Jerusalem-Ramallah shuttle.
A few hours before the Bush-Kerry debate, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher appeared before a Washington think tank and delivered a gloomy assessment for what can be expected in the region.
He warned that we are on the verge of the death of the two-state solution, and issued a call to the international community, especially the U.S., to do more to advance that solution. "Whoever is elected as the next president will have to sit down and talk about injecting new life into the road map, so it leads to a two-state solution before it is too late," said Muasher.
He wants the new administration to clearly and publicly define where the process would lead, and make clear to the two recalcitrant sides what would happen if they do not make appropriate progress on the road map.
But if Muasher watched the debate later that day, he must have certainly understood that that apparently won't happen. The only reference the two candidates made to the Middle East during their televised debate, as during the entire campaign, was avowing their unconditional commitment to Israeli security.
The next American president won't close himself up for long days at Camp David with the sides to pry an agreement out of them, won't reach out his hand to squeeze a handshake out of two old enemies, and won't agree to "knock their heads together," as an Israeli president once proposed to an American secretary of state in the days when an administration was still interested in the peace process.
The next president will be busy with saving the campaign in Iraq, with the international hunt for Al-Qaida, and with rehabilitating relations with Europe. That is the order of priorities set by the voters and those are the priorities that emerge from the reality on the ground.
Nobody is demanding that a candidate for U.S. president try to save the Middle East from itself. The Jewish voters will make do with a commitment to continue the unmitigated support for Israel, the Arab voters aren't organized enough to influence the race, and the general public is tired of the conflict.
This is going to be the first election in decades in which foreign affairs are the main issue on the agenda - but these are new foreign affairs. The voters will make do with a president who can promise a little security from terror and calm things down in Iraq. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can wait another four years.
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