Israelis, Palestinians at Odds Over U.S. Election
Thu Oct 21, 2004 04:28 AM ET
By Matt Spetalnick By Matt Spetalnick
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - If Israeli settler Rachel Saperstein could decide the outcome of the U.S. election, President Bush would beat Democratic challenger John Kerry by a landslide.
But Gaza shopkeeper Abu Gomaa hopes instead to see Bush's re-election bid go down in flames on Nov. 2. "I want to laugh ... at his humiliation," he says.
Locked in a bloody conflict dragging into its fifth year, Israelis and Palestinians both have a big stake in who governs in Washington and holds sway in Middle East diplomacy.
Yet rarely have they been more sharply divided over an American presidential race. "In this land of irreconcilable differences between Arabs and Jews, you can add one more thing they can't agree on," a U.S. diplomat said.
Opinion polls show that Israelis stand alone internationally in their rock-solid support for Bush, considering him the best ally the Jewish state has ever had in the White House.
Leaving little doubt that this sentiment reaches to the very top, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even managed to forget Kerry's name briefly during a recent newspaper interview.
On the other side of the divide, Palestinians who once had high hopes for Bush now bitterly oppose him.
Their hostility has been fed by Bush's perceived green light for Israel's military crackdown in the Palestinian territories, his diplomatic isolation of their leader Yasser Arafat and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Despite that, Palestinians only cautiously prefer Kerry. They hope he will take a more even-handed approach but see him as unlikely to seriously rethink America's Middle East policy.
For his part, Kerry has taken pains to reassure American Jewish voters that he would be as pro-Israel as Bush, even sending his brother, a convert to Judaism, as an emissary to ease any Israeli concerns.
In Israel, where attitudes have been hardened by a campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks, Bush's "war on terror" has won an enthusiastic following.
While polls show much of the world hostile to Bush and his Iraq policies, Israelis back him by a ratio of two to one -- a sign of gratitude for neutralizing their strongest Arab foe.
"Israel loves the president because he holds the umbrella that protects it from its enemies," wrote Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper.
Living in the heavily fortified Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, Saperstein regards Bush as a hero.
"Who else could keep a terrorist like Arafat in isolation and throw Saddam Hussein in jail?" the 63-year-old grandmother said. "Bush wants Israel to be safe from Muslim terror."
Though astonished at Bush's endorsement of Sharon's plan to evacuate Gaza settlements next year, she fears a Kerry administration would push for a handover of even more of the occupied land that she sees as Israel's by biblical birthright.
Palestinians are not so much enamoured of Kerry as embittered by what they see as Bush's pro-Israel bias.
They are furious with him for agreeing that Israel should be allowed to retain large swathes of the West Bank and bar the return of refugees under any future peace deal.
As the presidential race tightens, many hope to see Bush humbled on election day. "I want to see him bow his head in defeat and lower his arrogant tone," said Gomaa, 40, as he attended customers in his electronics shop in Gaza City.
But few Palestinians believe Kerry would take a more active peacemaking role than Bush, who backed away after seeing his "road map" peace plan shredded by violence.
Like Bush, Kerry has made scant mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in speeches and debates except to vow that he will safeguard Israel's security.
"They are competing to win the affection of the Zionist entity," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel's destruction. For the Palestinians, he says, "either of them is a losing choice."