Middle East would welcome Obama as a force for change


VIEW FROM AFAR . . . BEIRUT, JERUSALEM, RAMALLAH, GAZA:POLLS ACROSS the Middle East show Democrat Barack Obama would be elected by a landslide if people here were voting for the US president, writes Michael Jansen

In Lebanon, Obama would secure 45 per cent and Republican John McCain 18 per cent.

In the Palestinian territories, 37.3 per cent prefer Obama while 15.3 per cent support McCain - and 47 per cent like neither of them.

Tarif Khalidi, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut observed, "I would very much like to turn my back on the American election. The very fact that our fate hangs on a few American individuals is very upsetting.

Hopes pinned on them are invariably disappointed. Obama was a very good friend of Rashid [Khalidi, a cousin who assumed the Edward Said chair at Columbia University]. But Obama shed all his Arab and Muslim acquaintances."

Many Arabs were upset when he said Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel because Palestinians want East Jerusalem for their capital. But Jihad Khazen, commenting in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, wrote, "I do not intend to call Obama to account for a word he used in the election campaign . . . Obama is a thousand times better . . . than McCain who wants to revive the Cold War and drag the United States into new wars."

Lebanese pollster Abdo Saad asserted, "The world needs a change from the previous establishment. McCain would be a continuation of the Bush years. If Obama is bad, he will not be worse than his predecessor. Obama brings change."

Ghazi Chehab, a Jerusalem taxi driver, shrugged. "I don't know who is running and I don't care. All I want is to make enough to feed my children and live a decent life . . . I work from early in the morning until 11 at night."

Dr Mehdi Abdel Hadi, head of a Jerusalem think tank, stated, "At first, we thought Obama would be a big change, a new chapter. He would end the Bush era. But then we come across something about him that really annoys us."

He said there are three distinct reactions to Obama. The elite sees him as a member of a "new generation of leaders" who can make significant changes; the street believes whoever is elected will continue the close alliance with Israel; and fundamentalists have no preference for the presidency and regard the current economic and financial meltdown as punishment of the US and the West. "They call it the curse of the credit card and say people who live by the credit card are doomed."

Ghassan Khatib, former Palestinian minister of labour, remarked, "I believe the candidates have differences of approach. Obama would be more engaged than McCain . . . Obama might adopt a comprehensive approach to Middle East conflicts in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. This could mean the US would understand it cannot exclude Iran or Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas. I think Obama might adopt the Mitchell-Baker recommendations by moving to an inclusive approach."

In his view, this could produce reconciliation between various regional players and between the US and governments shunned by the Bush administration.

Jamal al-Khoudary, an independent member of the Palestinian legislature from Gaza, observed, "Obama is a young man with the strength of youth . . . His African roots may mean he will be more just with us and not allow us to be humiliated."