Posted on June 13, 2008 in Washington Watch

(A review of items of interest to the U.S.-Arab relationship – covering developments in Washington, political campaigns and the U.S. Media)

O! Jerusalem
Just how sensitive the issue of Jerusalem is became clear in the reaction to Barack Obama’s remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last week. Recall that the presumptive Democratic nominee said, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” The AIPAC crowd cheered, as did government spokesmen in Israel.

The Palestinian leadership reacted, as well, denouncing the comments. “This statement is totally rejected,” said Mahmoud Abbas, with Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat adding a bit of hyperbole to the denunciation, stating, “He [Obama] has closed all doors to peace.”

What both sides had assumed was that Obama was embracing the language of the 1996 legislation that called the Holy City “the undivided capital of Israel,” supported Israel’s exclusive sovereignty over the city, and demanded that the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Not so, said the Obama campaign. In clarifying comments to the Jerusalem Post (what better place to clarify), an Obama spokesperson spelled out the Senator’s position. “Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties” as part of “an agreement that they both can live with. Two principles should apply to any outcome: Jerusalem remains Israel’s capital and it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967.” The spokesman made clear that the Senator’s stance in no way precluded a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem or Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods.

Countering charges that Obama was changing his position, his campaign offered statements the Senator made on Jerusalem during the past decade, which showed that his position has been consistent over that time.

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    Still on the subject of Barack Obama, the Daily Telegraph (UK) published on June 3 the results of a poll they conducted in five European countries. They asked citizens of the Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia who they hoped would win the U.S. Presidential contest. In almost every case (with the exception of Russia), Barack Obama is preferred by a large margin. In Germany, for example, the numbers were 67% Obama, 6% McCain. In France Obama was preferred by a margin of 65%-8%, and in Britain it’s Obama 49%-14%.

    Interesting, but also ironic. Just how well would the son of a Kenyan immigrant with the middle name Hussein fare if he were running to be head of state in Germany, France or Britain?

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    Arab American members of Congress can make a difference.
    The Bush Administration has had some difficulty wrapping its arms around the Doha Agreement. Having opposed negotiations between the “majority” and “the opposition” in Lebanon for the past two years, the White House begrudgingly accepted the compromise reached by Lebanese parties on May 21.

    And so, while other major players such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, the European Union, Russia and France sent their foreign ministers to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s May 26 swearing in, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not attend. Instead, the U.S. was represented by a Congressional delegation led by Lebanese American Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), and including Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ray LaHood (R-IL), demonstrating the increasingly important role Arab American members of Congress are playing in Middle East issues

    And another instance:
    Pro-peace Arab Americans and American Jews have begun to work together to promote an alternate set of policy ideas in Washington. Evidence of the success of this new coalition could be seen in a May 14 Congressional letter to the President, sponsored by Representatives LaHood and David Price (D-NC), and co-signed by fifty of their colleagues.

    The letter, while strongly condemning the rocket attacks from Gaza and the smuggling of weapons into the Strip, calls on the U.S, to support a policy that ends “the Gaza blockade in a secure and timely manner, including the possible re-opening of the Egypt-Gaza border crossing under Palestinian Authority control. …We urge you to work actively with Egypt, Israel, and, where appropriate, the international community, to find solutions to this border challenge that address Israel’s security needs, provide relief to the people of Gaza, and create a climate more conducive to a successful peace process. Finally, we believe that any solution to the current situation should include exploration of a potential ceasefire, mediated most likely by third parties or even by President Abbas.”

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    Stirring up trouble with oil
    An election year is also “silly season” on Capitol Hill – a time when Congress spends more time on politics than policy. Silly bills pass, and even sillier ones are proposed. Before recess, Congress took on the issue of oil. Here are a few examples.

    •On May 12, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) authored a letter to the White House asking the President to call upon King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to increase production and lower oil prices when he visited the Kingdom in mid-May. Reid also is proposing legislation which has among its provisions a call to put pressure on OPEC to lower the price of oil, alleging that oil-producing nations are getting “billions of dollars from American consumers.”

    •“This title may be cited as the `No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act of 2008’ or `NOPEC’.” So begins a bill, introduced on May 15 and still wending its way through Congress, that pretends U.S. anti-trust law can be extended to outlaw any organization taking action to stabilize the price of oil by setting production limits or target prices – or any of the other mechanisms OPEC uses to protect oil prices from fluctuating wildly. It has passed the House, and has 14 co-sponsors in the Senate, but seems unlikely to pass Constitutional muster.

    •Taking this all one step farther, on May 21 the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation asking the Bush Administration to sue OPEC for price fixing. As one proponent of this legislation argued, “This bill guarantees that oil prices will reflect supply and demand economic rules, instead of wildly speculative and perhaps illegal activities.”

    Nowhere, of course, does the legislation consider the impact of increased demand from Asia, the lack of refining capacity worldwide, the huge profits made by U.S. oil companies and, yes, the small matter of the declining value of the U.S. dollar!

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    And, finally:
    Earlier this month, both The New York Times and the Associated Press published major stories about seven Palestinian students from Gaza whose Fulbright Scholarships had been cancelled by the State Department because the students had been unable to secure permission from the Israelis to exit Gaza.

    Many Americans were shocked that, instead of protesting this Israeli denial of educational opportunity and freedom of movement, the U.S. canceled the students’ awards.

    The public outcry was immediate and sustained, causing the State Department to not just reinstate the scholarships, but also to twist a few arms to get some of the students and a few others out of Gaza. It is a little victory, to be sure, but a major one for the students, and for the legacy of the late Senator Fulbright, a champion of justice and building understanding through educational exchanges. Reports persist, however, that hundreds of Gazans and three of the Fulbright winners are still trapped – refused exit permission by Israeli authorities. Ready to make peace? Doesn’t seem so.

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