Unmoved by Clinton and Trump, Palestinians Place Hope on the Third Candidate

Palestinian officials and experts tell Haaretz that interest in the U.S. election campaign hasn't been high, while their best hope has been hiding in plain sight.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010.
AFP

RAMALLAH - Of the two main candidates for U.S. president, the Palestinians prefer a third, says Husam Zomlot, strategy adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Our best candidate right now is neither Trump nor Clinton, but Obama,” he said.

This isn’t a diplomatic way for an official to dodge a question. It outlines a path that Zomlot believes is consistent with U.S. policy.

“In his remaining time in office he has a golden opportunity to determine the next administration’s position towards the Palestinian issue,” Zomlot said. “He can make a breakthrough that regardless of who wins the elections will save the two-state solution: The U.S. can recognize the State of Palestine.”

Although Zomlot speaks of “us,” the Palestinians’ interest in the U.S. election campaign hasn’t been high, Palestinian officials and experts told Haaretz. This contrasts with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which generated excitement and expectations of a fundamental change in America’s approach to the Palestinians.

The current disinterest may stem from the assumption that Hillary Clinton has it sewn up, but also from the disappointment, or even despair, that is expressed in focusing on things far from domestic and global politics.

Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business consultant who provides independent political analysis on Palestinian issues, says the lack of interest is expressed at both the political-institutional and personal levels. This is understandable as long as both candidates relate similarly to the Palestinian issue, he said.

Obama watches Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas as they shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2009.
Bloomberg

As an example of Palestinian disinterest, he notes that the Palestinian-American Chamber of Commerce in Ramallah, whose members include U.S. citizens who do business with the United States, hosted a lecture in August by Prof. Thomas Schaller of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In a slide presentation, Schaller discussed the demographic, anthropological and media aspects of the campaign, and predicted that the gap between Clinton and Donald Trump would be around 5 percent.

Tilt toward Clinton

In theory there’s an audience for such a lecture in Ramallah. During the 20th century many Palestinians from the region Ramallah, El Bireh and neighboring villages emigrated to the United States, and in recent years plenty have returned, either as pensioners or young adults returning to their homeland (where they had to fight to get their residency status restored).

Add to them the graduates of American universities in the city and there is a significant Palestinian-American presence. Yet only around a dozen people came to Schaller’s lecture, half of them from the U.S. Consulate and from the chamber of commerce itself.

Bahour, who is also a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, says the American expat community in Ramallah isn’t organized as an advocacy group – not just in the context of the election. One can assume, however, that most Palestinians with U.S. citizenship exercised their right to vote by absentee ballot.

According to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in cooperation with Gallup International Association and the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research, 40 percent of Palestinians favor Clinton, 17.7 favor Trump and 42.3 percent do not support either candidate.

Of this latter group, 43.1 percent said it was because of the candidates’ commitment to serve and defend Israel’s interests, 6.1 percent because the two-state solution is not included in the election platforms, 6.5 percent because of the pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and 13.5 percent because of the candidates’ alleged hatred of Islam and Muslims.  

Bahour, who joined the Democratic Party when Jesse Jackson ran in the 1984 Democratic primaries and got Palestinians excited by speaking about their right to a state, believes that Clinton will win most of the Arab vote, not just the Palestinian vote. His generation (50 and above) of Palestinian voters has always made Palestinian rights a litmus test for candidates, he said. Today Arab voters are more assimilated into society and take into account the candidates’ positions on other issues.

Bahour, who addressed a panel on the Israeli-Palestinian issue that took place alongside the Democratic convention in July, believes Clinton will win by a small margin.

But he does not think the Palestinian cause will be high on her agenda. As far as he knows, she plans to bring back Dennis Ross as a special adviser on the Middle East, which he thinks would be a catastrophe.

“I think she’ll do nothing,” Bahour said. “She’ll put in Ross, who is the best person at buying time. He bought his entire career on selling nothing about Palestine and Israel, so he’ll be able to buy another period of time until something changes on the ground.”

Window of hope

Here Bahour crosses paths with Zomlot.

“It is key that we do not lose hope too fast there is a window of hope from now until January 20,” Bahour said. “Nobody is holding their breath, but that window exists. The right thing for Obama to do is to recognize the State of Palestine and change the game strategically, if they are serious about the two-state solution.”

As Bahour put it, recognizing Palestine “gives a clear indication that the entire [Israeli] policy towards annexation is not accepted. Without recognition from the U.S. side, I think that Israel will get a green or at least a yellow light that the settlement enterprise imposing the one-state solution is being entertained in the U.S. Which is catastrophic for them.”

According to Bahour, “At the end of the day, we can live with one state. It’ll take a hundred years of a civil-rights struggle to get to the one state that we want so Obama still has something to do. If I were Clinton, I would call Obama every day asking him to recognize Palestine before she’ll be forced to do something” because the status quo is about to collapse at any moment.

Aside from Clinton, Bahour added, there’s a policy decision-making mechanism in the Democratic Party, and those decision-makers are approachable and amenable to dialogue.

Here, too, Bahour’s cautious optimism jibes with that of Zomlot, who said “the issue has never been the policy that sees the occupation and settlements as illegal, but rather American politics. The problem has always been the gap between American policy and politics, but this gap is narrowing now.”

As he put it, “there are so many trends that tell of a solid change in public opinion.” He said the situation had gone “from seeing Israel as above any debate to a state of a normal stature, while regarding and seeing the other side of the equation the Palestinians.”