Democratic Candidates Discuss Israel-Palestine

Last weekend, most of the Democratic presidential candidates addressed remarks to a gathering of Arab American leaders assembled at their Quadrennial National Leadership Conference (NLC) in Michigan. An examination of how each of them dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proved quite revealing.

But first, to set the context. Over 600 Arab Americans gathered for this year’s NLC, sponsored by the Arab American Institute. Among the bi-partisan group were Arab American elected officials and party leaders, and representatives of forty-one organizations from twenty states. During the three day meeting, they discussed key domestic and foreign policy issues, and took a long hard look at how best to prepare and position the community for the 2008 contest.

All of the Presidential candidates were invited to speak or send representatives, and some did. On the Republican side, only Texas Congressman Ron Paul responded, delivering remarks that touched on many of the community’s concerns. Paul spoke critically of the Bush Administration’s adventure in Iraq and its failure to pursue an "even-handed" policy with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. His comments were well-received. The fact that none of the other Republicans responded was disappointing to some, but not surprising, since too many of them have rhetorically boxed themselves in with hostile positions on civil liberties, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Middle East in general.

Among the Democrats, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich made appearances; while New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards sent video presentations of their remarks accompanied by senior campaign officials who spoke and responded to questions. Kucinich, a long-time critic of U.S. Middle East policy and an advocate for peace and justice was passionate and a crowd-pleaser, but what was especially striking to me was the way in which the four leading Democrats chose to address the critical issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Excerpts from their remarks follow:

Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Getting out of Iraq will also enable us to play a constructive role in a renewed Middle East peace process that would mean security and normal relations for Israel and the Palestinians. Whether or not the United States makes progress in helping to broker a final agreement, consistent U.S. involvement can lower the level of violence and begin to restore our credibility in the region, and reengaging in this process will be a priority of my administration." See Clinton’s full statement here.

Barack Obama: "Our neglect of the Middle East peace process has fueled despair and extremism. As President I will make a personal commitment to work toward ending the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and realize the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security. This is important to Arab Americans, it’s important to Jewish Americans, and it is important to me." See Obama’s full statement here.

John Edwards: "I want to be the President who stays very actively engaged in trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli issue. It’s a huge issue, everyone knows it; the ultimate solution is a two-state solution, two states living side by side with peace and security, and I want to be the President that makes a serious effort to reach that solution." See Edwards full statement here.

Bill Richardson: "Amidst an avalanche of incompetence, President Bush’s record in the Middle East stands out as singularly flawed. For years he has disengaged from the peace process, allowing the situation to drift downward. . . . It is crucial that we break the continued deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We must help the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate a two-state solution which guarantees Israel’s security and creates a viable Palestinian state. To do this, the U.S. must rebuild the credibility it has lost under George W. Bush, so that we can facilitate, broker, and help finance a lasting peace.

"I will go to work on day one of my term, employing my years of experience as a negotiator to broker a solution. The broken dream of peace cannot be abandoned. We must take the shattered pieces and build a new reality." See the full address here.

Much can be learned from the candidates’ choice of words, what was said and not said.

Of the four, Obama, Edwards and Richardson spoke of their personal commitment to become directly engaged in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Only Obama and Richardson directly expressed their commitment to realize the specific outcome of two states, while Edwards described this outcome only as a goal worth making a "serious effort to achieve."

Obama and Richardson found fault with he Bush Administration’s neglect of the Middle East peace process and spoke of the danger posed by this neglect. Richardson’s remarks were the most evocative, while Obama added an interesting domestic component to his commitment, noting that the peace-making effort has not only his support but that of Arab Americans and Americans Jews.

What is interesting is the degree to which Senator Clinton’s comments stood in contrast to those of her fellow candidates. Whether intentionally or not, she was remarkably vague, promising neither personal involvement in peacemaking nor committing to a specific outcome, saying only that "U.S. involvement" serves a tactical objective in that it would "lower the level of violence and help to restore our credibility in the region." (In fact, a review of all of Clinton’s published statements and remarks since becoming a candidate provided nothing that would add clarity to her position on this critical issue.)

As I noted, much can be learned from their words – what was said, and not said.