By James Zogby, Special to Gulf News
After delivering two solidly pro-Israel speeches before American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) audiences (one in Illinois, and the other in Washington) Senator Barack Obama ran into a troublesome question a few weeks ago, while campaigning in Iowa.
In many ways, it was a classic Iowa moment - the kind that makes me glad that Iowa still stands alone as the first caucus state in the presidential election cycle.
The question to Senator Obama came from an Iowa peace activist. It was thoughtful and quite direct, "On my trip to Israel/Palestine I found a very different reality on the ground for Christians and Muslims living in the West Bank than the Israel experience you shared with AIPAC last Friday. As president, how would you address the human rights crisis that Palestinian Christians and Muslims must bear?"
Obama's answer was also direct and included the following observations. After restating his belief in the centrality of the US-Israel strategic relationship, the senator went on to agree, in part, with the questioner saying "no one is suffering more than the Palestinian people".
He continued by suggesting that "if we could get some movement among the Palestinian leadership, what I'd like to see is a loosening up of some of the restrictions on providing aid directly to the Palestinian people". He then made reference to "heavy stones Israel must carry if there is to be progress for its peace", noting specifically the settlement issue.
Other than his expression of some real concern of the suffering of the Palestinians, Obama's observations were, in fact, nothing out of the ordinary and consistent with US policy. But the remark about Palestinian suffering became a national news story, prompting some hard-line supporters of Israel to demand a clarification. This was, I believe, an effort to teach a lesson to the junior senator from Illinois - much as had been done in 2004 when Howard Dean called for a more balanced US role in peacekeeping and when John Kerry criticised Israel's West Bank wall. The intent was to shut off debate by making it clear that this issue was off limits.
The story, however, did not end here, because this is Iowa and Iowans take their politics seriously. While some complain that Iowa or New Hampshire, (the first primary state) are not representative of the rest of the nation, in fact, they are. Though most of Iowa's ethnic, racial and interest groups are small, they take their responsibilities seriously, knowing that they will get the chance to raise the issues and ask the questions that the rest of America needs to have answered.
And on most topics, Iowans have done their homework and can be quite sophisticated, including matters involving the Middle East.
In fact, for two decades, Iowa's Democrats have overwhelmingly passed resolutions at their state conventions supporting a more balanced and compassionate US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And so, it is not surprising that this year, a group of Iowans responded to the effort to intimidate Senator Obama with an open letter signed by activists across the state.
The letter, urging the senator to stand his ground, read, in part: "We have noted with concern the harshness of criticism you have received.... Your campaign has been built around a new brand of politics that offers hope to Americans eager for courageous, moral leadership. We thank you for extending this approach to a conflict which has historically suffered from a lack of American vision, engagement, and leadership. As Iowans, we have long advocated a foreign policy that reflects America's values and commitment to justice and peace. Your compassion and support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and the security of Israel are consistent with the positions taken by Iowa citizens for many years."
It is important that this group of Iowans responded as they did because it would have been tragic if those debate had been silenced and there had been no thoughtful discussion of the US peace-making role in the Arab-Israeli conflict during this presidential contest.
Given the deep frustration with US policy that exists throughout the Middle East and given the clear need that both Israelis and Palestinians have in US leadership providing a steady and balanced hand in peacemaking efforts, it is vital that this issue be discussed and candidates and voters be able to air their views.
As I have noted before, since the end of the Vietnam War, every US president has had to expend significant political capital on Arab-Israeli peacemaking (even George W. Bush, after ignoring this issue for years, now realises how important this question is to the US role in the broader Middle East). It is, therefore, imperative that those who seek to lead the United States in the next four years be asked to engage in an open conversation with the American people about how they intend to conduct Middle East policy.
Finally, it is worth noting, as our polling has demonstrated, that despite the hardline and one-sided positions taken by some, most Americans, including most American Jews and Arab Americans, support a US policy that recognises the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians and works for a balanced resolution to their conflict.
My thanks, therefore, goes to Iowa's peace activists for challenging the candidates to talk about the Middle East and for sending a clear message that the openness to engage in a respectful conversation about the Middle East is what is so desperately needed in this presidential race.
Dr. James Zogby is President of the Arab American Institute and Senior Advisor at Zogby International.