Palestinians insulted by Mitt Romney’s comments

Just eight weeks before the American presidential elections, Palestinians are furious over comments by Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The private remarks were made in May to wealthy donors but released only now.

Palestinians are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel,” Romney said, adding that prospects for a two-state solution of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel were dim.

“You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this going to remain an unsolved problem, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that, ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”

According to Mother Jones magazine, which posted the video clip of Romney’s comments on its website, the former Massachusetts governor made the remarks at a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser at Boca Raton, Florida. Boca Raton has a wealthy Jewish community, although it was not clear how many Jews were at the Romney fundraiser.

“It’s political illiteracy – has he even ever read a book about Palestine?” Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the president of the PASSIA think tank in east Jerusalem fumed to The Media Line. “On one level Palestinians are laughing at this, but on another level it will be very serious if this man has any say in our future.”

The comments come as the latest polls show a close race between Romney and President Obama. Although American Jews account for only two percent of the population, they represent significant voting blocs in important swing states like Florida. Polls show that more than two-thirds of Jews who plan to vote will cast their ballot for President Obama, although many believe he is not as supportive of Israel as were some of his predecessors.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the putative seat of Palestinian government, Palestinians reacted angrily to Romney’s comments.

“He’s buying votes,” 27-year old Morad Al-Siory told The Media Line. “How can you judge Palestine if you haven’t seen both sides? I’m right here and I see it with my own eyes.”

Al-Siory said he had come to Ramallah to visit his family. His father, Mohammed, who owns a falafel stand, agreed with his son’s comments.

“How can you swim if you don’t get wet?” he asked. “I’d love to see American policy in the Middle East change.”

He also said, however, that he was frustrated with President Obama’s policy and that there was only a slight chance that he might do something different than Romney if re-elected.

“In the last four years he’s done nothing” Al-Siory said. “He fooled the Arabs and the Muslims with his speech in Cairo.”

He was referring to the speech that President Obama made in Egypt soon after taking office in which he called for “a new beginning” in relations between the US and the Arab world. It was seen at the time as an effort to reach out to the Arab world.

Palestinian officials also responded angrily to Romney’s comments.

“No one stands to gain more from peace with Israel than Palestinians and no one stands to lose more in the absence of peace than Palestinians,” chief negotiator Sa’ib Ariqat told the Reuters news agency. “Only those who want to maintain the Israeli occupation will claim the Palestinians are not interested in peace.”

But other Palestinian analysts said the statements had to be seen in context — as part of the election campaign, where Jewish donors and voters play an important role.

“Palestinians have learned through experience not to take statements made during election campaigns seriously,” Ghassan Al-Khatib, a professor of contemporary Arab studies at Bir Zeit University told The Media Line. “When you compare what we hear during the campaign and what presidents do in the future, you don’t see the connections.”

At the same time, Khatib said the statements further reinforced previous Palestinian attitudes toward the Republican candidate, who is perceived to have little foreign policy experience.

“This is not a surprise for the Palestinians,” Khatib said. “The impression is that Romney has been extraordinarily hostile and negative towards Palestinians all along.”

Israeli Expats Solidly Back Bush

If it were up to the Israeli expatriate community in Los Angeles, President Bush would win re-election not just by a landslide but by an earthquake.

Take the middle-aged Israeli waiting for his order of falafel and humus at the Pita Kitchen in Sherman Oaks. Asked about his political choice, the man, who declined to give his name, burst out, “Bush, only Bush. He is a strong man, a man of his word.”

Did he or his adult children know of any Israelis voting for Sen. John Kerry? The man shook his head, pointed a finger to his forehead and delivered his response, “They would be crazy.”

Not all expats are as ardent as the Pita Kitchen patron, but Gal Shor, editor-in-chief of the Hebrew weekly, Shalom LA, estimates that at least 65 percent of Israelis eligible to vote in U.S. elections will cast their ballots for Bush.

“First and last, we’re concerned about Israel and the war on terrorism, and on that, Bush scores much higher,” said Shor, who left no doubt about his personal favorite.

“I came here 15 years ago from a kibbutz background as a lefty, but now I’m completely opposed to the Democrats on both foreign and domestic issues,” he said.

The main exception to the pro-Bush bandwagon, it seems, are Israelis who intermarried with U.S. Jews and have bought into their spouses’ Democratic leanings, Shor said.

Carmella Pardo, who works the Israeli, Russian and ultra-Orthodox communities for the Jewish Voters for Bush, puts the pro-Bush vote among Israelis as high as 80 percent.

“Some of the old timers, who have lived here for decades, are close to the American Jewish community and vote Democratic, but the younger ones and more recent arrivals are solidly for the president,” she said.

The Russians are similar to Israelis in their political outlook, while the ultra-Orthodox don’t vote at all, Pardo added.

Another veteran Israeli observer said that among his friends, “I don’t know a single Israeli who is going to vote for Kerry and not a single American Jew who is going to vote for Bush.”

Avner Hofstein, who arrived here two years ago as the West Coast correspondent for the Israeli daily, Yediot Aharanot, is puzzled and somewhat dismayed by his local countrymen’s pervasive support for the president.

“Apparently, it doesn’t bother Israelis here that Bush really hasn’t been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the last couple of years,” he said.

“Maybe the fact that Bush has stood solidly by Israel is good for the short term and has helped counterbalance the European anti-Israel stand,” he argued. “But in the long run, by Bush telling [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon that he’ll back him up whatever he does and Bush’s simplistic outlook and policy in general, [it] will weaken and isolate America in the long run, and that’s bad for Israel and the world.”

An unscientific phone poll turned up at least one Israeli advocate for Kerry. Psychologist Yitzhak Berman, a longtime local activist for the left-wing Meretz Party, believes that Bush’s policy runs counter to Israel’s long-term interests.

“While Bush may give Israel a temporary sense of security, he has alienated the entire Muslim world, which will make an eventual peace that much harder to achieve,” Berman said. “Bush is not doing Israel a favor by his uncritical support of the right wing.”

From his perspective as the acting Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, Zvi Vapni believes that putting all the area’s estimated 150,000 Israelis into Bush’s basket is an over-simplification. While many Israeli expats may strike a more militant posture abroad than do the folks at home, “one can’t say that we have a right-wing Israeli community here,” Vapni said.

He drew a distinction between those who live in “Israeli clusters,” read Israeli papers, tune in to Israeli channels, eat in Israeli restaurants and tend to lean to the right.

“But there are many Israelis in academic life, those who work in Silicon Valley and high-tech industries, who are not affiliated with the Israeli community,” Vapni said. “They are more likely to reflect the outlook of the American mainstream.”


Terror Fight Garners Bush Israel Support

Last month, a 77-year-old American woman living in Haifa called me and asked how she could register to vote in the American elections.

“I have never voted for a Republican before,” she told me. “I’ve even worked in Democratic presidential campaigns. But this time I am voting for President Bush.”

When I asked her why, she summed it all up in three words: “Bush has backbone.”

It is a sentiment I have heard often in discussing the upcoming elections with hundreds of Americans living in Israel. If what I have heard is indicative of the opinions of the 120,000 eligible voters here, President Bush will win their support by a wide margin.

That would mark a sea change from four years ago. Because of Jews’ long-standing affinity for the Democrats and the ill-will Bush’s father justly earned for his frosty attitude toward Israel, Bush faired poorly among American voters in Israel in 2000.

But while I have encountered few people here who voted for Bush in 2000, I have met few who do not plan to vote for him in 2004.

What accounts for this difference? The No. 1 reason, as the Haifa woman so succinctly put it, appears to be Bush’s resolve in fighting the war on terror. While voters living in the United States are focused on a range of issues, their countrymen living in Israel are focused almost exclusively on the issue of terrorism.

Israelis are on the front lines in the war on terror, and the Americans who live among them are no exception. Here, the war on terror is not some distant fight experienced through a living room television. It is right on our doorstep. It accompanies us as we walk our children to school, board a bus, eat in a pizza shop or sit in a cafe.

Americans living in Israel have learned the hard way that the only way to defeat terror is to fight it. We have seen how the Israeli government’s decision two years ago to initiate Operation Defensive Shield and thereby dramatically increase its military response to terror has drastically reduced the number of casualties from terror attacks.

That is why President Bush’s post-Sept. 11 decision to wage an all-out offensive against global terror is one that we know has made America and the entire free world safer. Perhaps Americans living on the front lines are more appreciative than others of the security afforded by the president’s resolve.

In contrast, there is widespread concern here that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will not forcefully confront terrorism. He has given ample reason for doubt, from a Senate record replete with votes against military spending to foreign policies that seem incoherent to promises that he would wage a more “sensitive” war on terror.

While concerns about Kerry’s resolve might be expected from Republicans, I am surprised by how many Democrats have the same doubts. Time after time, I have heard Democrats lament how Kerry is not cut from the same cloth as the “Democrats of old” who helped lead the struggle against fascism and communism.

The position of the two candidates on specific matters related to Israel also plays an important role in determining the vote of Americans who live here. Bush’s refusal to pressure Israel into making concessions to terror when many shortsighted democratic leaders around the world were calling for just that, has earned him a deserved reputation as the strongest friend Israel has ever had in the White House.

Moreover, his decision in 2001 not to send U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N.-sponsored conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, as a protest against the anti-Semitic circus that took place there has also won him the support of many who appreciate the president’s moral clarity.

In contrast, Kerry is seen as constantly changing his positions on even the most important issues. An example was his recent flip-flop on the defensive barrier Israel is erecting to protect its civilians from suicide bombers. At first, Kerry opposed the fence that has proved so effective at saving lives, calling it a “barrier to peace.” Later, when he realized that the 1,000 Israeli victims of terrorism made his position politically untenable, he reversed course.

Not surprisingly, Americans in Israel do not have a great deal of confidence that as president, Kerry would support Israel in the face of European, Arab and U.N. pressure. Having made winning the support of these parties a central theme in his campaign, many here are concerned that Israel will pay the price for Kerry’s hopes of being “respected abroad.”

For example, how would Kerry respond to the recent French foreign minister’s call that Yasser Arafat, an unrepentant terrorist who President Bush has refused to meet, be included in peace negotiations?

When Kerry calls for more U.N. involvement in the war on terror, Americans in Israel see it as a strategy of appeasement. Will an institution that allows Libya to chair a human rights commission and Syria to sit on the Security Council help the United States defend democracy and confront terror?

Likewise, when Americans in Israel hear Kerry claim that European leaders would rather have him as president, they are no less concerned. After all, this is the same Europe that has counseled appeasement time and again and which has done so little to combat a rising tide of global anti-Semitism. Will a President Kerry rely on the resolve and supposed moral clarity of European leaders to confront an evil that threatens our entire world?

According to the polls, Bush and Kerry are still running neck and neck. But judging from what I have seen and heard over the last few months, Bush will win the votes of American in Israel by a landslide. I suppose backbone counts for a little more when you are on the front lines.

Courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Kory Bardash is the chairman of the Israeli branch of Republicans Abroad (

Palestinians Spin Speech

Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat chose to view President George W. Bush’s speech in the most positive light, rejecting the call for his ouster and focussing instead on the promise for a state.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority announced plans to hold presidential and legislative elections in January, municipal elections next March, and to overhaul the Palestinian Finance Ministry.

Yet even before President Bush called for replacing the Palestinian Authority leadership, there were growing indications that Palestinians were doing some soul-searching.

One indication was a June 19 petition against suicide bombings, signed by Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO’s top official for Jerusalem; Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian legislator; and other Palestinian intellectuals. The petition, which was published twice as an advertisement in eastern Jerusalem’s Arab press, was the most impressive public move against the current wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks in recent months.

"We would like to believe that those who stand behind the military operations, whose targets are civilians in Israel, will reconsider their acts, because we do not see that they lead to any results, except for more hatred and animosity between the two peoples," the petition read. The petition was signed by 55 Palestinian personalities. It was followed by another advertisement a few days later with even more signatures.

To be sure, the writers of the petition carefully chose their words to stay within the Palestinian consensus. They did not call suicide bombings "terrorist attacks," for example, but "military operations." In addition, they did not say that the attacks against civilians were immoral per se, simply that they weren’t useful to the Palestinian cause.

In any case, the petition coincided with a rally in the Gaza Strip in which hundreds protested over deteriorating economic conditions, demanding work and food rather than armed struggle. Some demonstrators told reporters that they wanted to know what had happened to relief money from overseas, little of which had made its way from the Palestinian Authority to the people.

With outside pressure mounting to overthrow Arafat, he may understand that his only chance for continued popular support will be an improvement in the Palestinians’ economic situation.

Israel is unlikely to reopen its gates to Palestinian workers in the foreseeable future, and significant economic aid from the United States will depend on a cessation of violence — as Bush indicated in his speech this week.

Now, with Bush having come out strongly against the Palestinian leader — on Monday he called "on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror" — Arafat is likely to intensify his efforts to hang on to his image as the only leader able to rally the Palestinian people behind him.

Indeed, for nearly a decade of the Oslo peace process, even as evidence mounted that he was in gross violation of his peace commitments, Arafat maneuvered to stay in power by presenting himself as indispensable.

Curiously, in his initial reaction, Arafat described Bush’s speech as "a serious effort to push the peace process."

The next day, however, he joined other Palestinian officials in saying that only the Palestinians would choose their own leaders. Bush’s call for new leadership was "not acceptable," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. Indeed, the present Palestinian Authority leadership is well aware that Arafat’s removal may also mean the end of their political careers.

"Yasser Arafat was elected in democratic elections, and President Bush and others must respect this," Erekat said. Israeli legislator Ahmed Tibi, who previously served as a top adviser to Arafat, said Bush had surpassed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the person Palestinians hated most.

"Arafat will remain head of the Palestinian Authority, and American pressure to replace him will only increase the violence," Tibi warned. Sensing the writing on the wall, Arafat will try to drive a wedge among the United States, the European Union and the Arab world by adopting a seemingly "peaceful" strategy and warning against "renewed Israeli occupation" of the territories, analysts said.

He also will take actions that appear to restrain Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as he began to do this week. In an interview last week with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Arafat sounded too good to be true. During an interview in Arafat’s battered Ramallah headquarters, he accepted former President Clinton’s outline for a peace settlement, complimented Sharon and said he could make peace with him, adopted the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s declaration of "no more war" and quoted Bush that "enough is enough," regarding violence.

He also criticized Israel for targeting the Palestinian Authority, rather than Hamas or Islamic Jihad — and announced that he was putting the leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, under house arrest.

Indeed, Palestinian police encircled Yassin’s residence in Gaza early this week and arrested at least 17 low-level Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists.

The arrests were followed by intensive contacts between Palestinian police and leaders of Hamas, raising suspicions that the seemingly tough hand was yet another case of the Palestinian Authority’s "revolving door" security policy, in which suspects are arrested and, when pressure eases, quickly released. Few in Israel took Arafat’s purported moderation seriously. Indeed, Arafat’s best displays of verbal moderation come when he feels the screws tightening. One example was the aftermath of the June 2001 terrorist attack at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco that killed 21 Israeli teenagers.

Arafat quickly announced a cease-fire to forestall Israeli retaliation. But violence resumed once enough time had passed that an Israeli attack would seem less like retaliation than provocation.

Now, following the Bush speech, Arafat has even more reason to appear moderate.

However, it was clear that the speech could speed up local pressure on Arafat to step down.

Last week, Edward Said, a former Arafat crony and one of the most influential Palestinian intellectuals in the United States, issued a call for "elections now."

Writing in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Said wrote, "A new basis of legitimacy has to be created by the only and ultimate source of authority, namely, the people itself."

Said stressed that this should not be done in response to outside pressure, but rather because of internal Palestinian demand for accountable and responsible government.

Said criticized Arafat for having "made a deal with the occupation through Oslo," the same argument that led to a rift between the two men several years ago. Some Palestinians believe the Oslo accords were unfair because they obligated the Palestinians to cease violence against Israel — an obligation that was ignored, in any case — while not assuring them that Israel would meet all their demands in negotiations.

Yet in a roundabout way, Said also recognized that the Palestinians needed to abandon terrorism.

"Who else but the Palestinian people can construct the legitimacy they need to rule themselves, and fight the occupation with weapons that don’t kill innocents and lose us more support than ever before?" Said asked. "A just cause can easily be subverted by evil or inadequate or corrupt means. The sooner this is realized, the better the chance we have to lead ourselves out of the present impasse."