Commentary

Middle East Perspectives on the U.S. Election

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Following the conclusion of the Republican and Democratic Party Conventions in Tampa and Charlotte (respectively), observers and newspaper editorials from Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and other countries in the region commented on the near absence of interest in developments outside the United States. What little was discussed in terms of foreign policy, they remarked, was focused on the perennial issue of Israel and the status of Jerusalem. Consequently, many of them remained unexcited by the prospects of another election which ignores foreign affairs.

It was perhaps the Lebanese Daily Star that summed up the atmosphere at both political conventions best, noting: “For almost the last two years, this region of the world has been immersed in the eruption and repercussions of the Arab Spring. But people should remember that for the last four years, the American public and the political establishment have been obsessed with one overriding concern: the economic situation....If people in the Middle East believe that Washington will turn its attention to regional issues after Election Day, they should also remember that the United States is also in the process of shifting its priority list further east, as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China. There might be rhetoric about the Israeli-Arab conflict, for example, but no one should expect any meaningful action.”

A similar sentiment is expressed by independent journalist Gwynne Dyer, who, writing on the pages of the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, remarked: “It’s the economy, stupid, and two months before the election nobody wants to get sidetracked into discussing a peripheral issue like American foreign policy....Although the Republicans do their best to paint Obama as a wild-eyed radical who is dismantling America’s defences, he has actually been painfully orthodox in his foreign policy....It’s not surprising that the rest of the world doesn’t much care about the U.S. election. Most foreigners, on both the right and the left, are more comfortable with Obama than Romney, but U.S. foreign policy will stay the same whoever wins. They might not like all of it, but they’re used to it.”

Yet, the last two weeks have also seen their share of controversy, not least of which was the Democratic Party’ initial omission of any reference to the status of Jerusalem, only to later reverse itself at the insistence of President Obama. The move caused much consternation from different observers both before and after the change. The Saudi Gazette’s Ray Hanania for example saw Obama’s decision as an act of “submission to Israel….That pandering has been the cornerstone of American politics and contradicts claims that American Middle East policy seeks fairness, justice and civil rights....Taking the Jerusalem language out sent a strong message that maybe for once, America has a president who cares about peace, justice and the Rule of Law. Putting it back in shows Obama is no different than the rest, a slave to Israel’s politics.”

The about-face on Jerusalem also solicited several responses from the Israeli media. For at least one of them, Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick, the development only underscored what the author perceives as Obama’s (and the Democratic Party’s) lukewarm support for the state of Israel: “More than anything else, the floor vote showed how out of step a large and significant constituency in the Democratic Party is with the basic character of their country. The spectacle should raise concerns among all supporters of Israel who believe Obama’s pro-Israel list is proof they have a safe home today in the Democratic Party.”

In an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, Ophir Falk is less direct about where the author thinks the voters’ allegiance should lie, even though it is clear what the red lines for that support should be: “The presidential candidate more likely to prevent a nuclear Iran should get the American vote. There are a number of other important issues in the upcoming elections, but preventing a nuclear Iran stands above and beyond all else. Everything else pales in comparison....Clearly, this time, the Jewish American vote must go to the candidate most capable of confronting this grave threat....In America’s best interest, and with eventual congressional consent, the presidential candidates should make it explicitly clear to America’s foes and allies exactly where the red line is and the military ramifications of crossing it. This November, the American vote should go to the candidate that draws that line.”

For Jordan Times’ Musa Keilani, the back and forth on the question of Jerusalem and the jostling for the Jewish vote, is exactly “How Israel wants U.S. politics…. Ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, Republicans and Democrats are vying with each other to prove their loyalty to Israel....Still, Israel is not happy because neither manifesto explicitly endorses its position that Jerusalem is its ‘indivisible’ capital....Reports of the exclusion of any endorsement of Jerusalem and subsequent amendment to the Democratic manifesto seem to have drawn only marginal interest among ordinary Americans who are more concerned about their economic well-being than the politics of the Middle East. However, that is not the way Israel wants it. It seeks to play a centre-stage game in U.S. politics....That should explain the furore of Israeli politicians regarding the presidential elections.”

Jihad el-Khazen is less bothered by the whole episode, since in his view there is a lot of consistency across U.S. administrations on the issue of Jerusalem: “Perhaps the most important issue during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) week, was the fact that an amendment was made to the Democratic Party’s platform which said that ‘Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.’... [But] if Barack Obama wins a second term, he will no doubt return to the same position that every single U.S. president before him was compelled to adopt, namely that the future of Jerusalem is to be decided by negotiations. Even George W. Bush...had to cave in to this reality, and abided by it throughout eight catastrophic years in the United States and the world at large.”

Finally, for many of these commentators outside of Israel, even though they struggle to distinguish between President Obama’s policies and Mitt Romney’s potential policies in the Middle East, the former is preferable to the latter. As Gulf News’ Fawaz Turki puts it: “Party conventions do not determine who the presidential nominee will be. Primaries do. What happens at conventions does not translate into what happens on November 6. Polls do. And the popular vote does not clinch the result of a presidential election. The electoral college does. Party conventions are, well, a fun event, a wrap of a presidential campaign....Is it possible that Barack Obama will lose the presidential election in November? It’s possible. Very possible. But Mitt Romney in the White House for the next four or, God forbid, eight years? Oh, the horror, the horror!”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.