The morning of Thursday, January 12, myself, and other Palestinian and international activists were invited to the branch of Jerusalem University in Ramallah for a conference that Barak Obama, the US senator from Illinois, was holding with students. The others were skeptical about him, but I assured them that he is a very progressive politician and he would be supportive of the Palestinian cause.
Barak Obama began the conference by saying how surprised he was that it was cold and raining in Ramallah, that it went against his preconceived notions about the climate in the Middle East. He spoke about his background and how he was the underdog in his race for the Senate. He explained to us that even though the US has made many foreign policy mistakes, that he believed in our system of checks and balances. He then offered to start a dialog with the audience.
One student asked how Arab governments can create a paradigm shift and improve relations with the US. When he answered the question, I tried not to give in to frustrated laughter because, I kid you not, this is what he said (I am paraphrasing and my comments are in parenthesis):
The Arab governments need to embrace democracy, not theocracy. When you allow the will of God to influence the laws of your country, you will not win the support of the US. (What about Israel claiming they have the God given right to rule this land?) The Arab governments need to renounce violence against civilians. (What about 100,000 dead Iraqis, were all of those people terrorists, Baathists, foreign fighters or were some of them civilians?) The US is opposed to theocracy and terrorism and if the Arab governments want to create a paradigm shift, they need to address these concerns of ours.
So then I asked him, “You say the US is opposed to theocracy and terrorism, how can you explain to the Palestinian people how the US can be opposed to these things but still supports a state that has racist, oppressive, unjust and apartheid policies. And do you see how this paints an inconsistent picture to the people of the Middle East?”
He began his answer by saying he would not accept the assumptions I made and therefor was not going to address that part of my question. He said he could understand the Palestinian view that the policies of the US were one sided but he said the relationship with Israel was not going to change. My high hopes for Barak Obama’s foreign policy ideas were shot down!
Obama said this was his first trip to the Middle East, that he had just come from Qatar and Jordan. I imagine he stayed in some pretty fancy hotels. I’m not sure that if you are a powerful American politician on your first ever trip to the middle east that you can really get a good idea of what things are like here.
So Barak Obama, I would like to send you an invitation. I invite you to consider that maybe your preconceived notions about the weather in the Middle East are not the only notions that were incorrect. Barak Obama, I would like to invite you to stand in line at Qalandia checkpoint, I would like you to witness the humiliation Palestinians face there, I’d like to invite you to take part in a peaceful demonstration like Mohammad Mansour was doing when his friend was shot and killed, or Roni, who was shot in the neck and who is now paralysed from the waist down. I’d like to invite you to acknowledge that there are families on the Palestinian side of the wall who cannot travel 5 minutes away to the next village to see their familes on the Israeli side of the wall. I would invite you to meet Ahmad, a five year old boy I met on the way back from Jenin whose father was killed by Israeli soldiers. I would like you to consider that if a Palestinian wants to leave the country by plane, he or she cannot leave via Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, he or she must travel by land to Jordan and leave via the airport in Amman. This is the Middle East’s only democracy, Mr. Obama! I would invite you to consider how the unconditional support for Israel with US tax dollars affects 4 million Palestinian people who just want to live their lives and be free from oppression.