CAIRO - For decades, the U.S. has jealously guarded its role of sole arbiter of the Arab-Israeli dispute. In light of recent shows of support for Israel by U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama, however, many Arabs fear that Zionist influence on the U.S. body politic -- across the political spectrum -- has made the notion of 'U.S. even-handedness' a contradiction in terms.
"When it comes to the Middle East conflict, the Arabs no longer see any difference between Republicans and Democrats," Ahmed Thabet, political science professor at Cairo University told IPS. "Both parties vie with one another in expressing total support for Israel."
In a speech before Israeli parliament in May, U.S. President George W. Bush went further than any of his predecessors in voicing praise for the self-proclaimed Jewish state. Referring to Israelis as a "chosen people", Bush pledged Washington's unwavering support against Israel's traditional nemeses, including Iran and resistance parties Hamas and Hezbollah.
In statements heavy on "Judeo-Christian" religious references, Bush went on to describe Washington's alliance with Israel as "unbreakable".
Similar sentiments have been echoed by Bush's would be Republican successor, Senator John McCain, who has also pledged "eternal" U.S. support for Israel.
"Israel and the U.S. must always stand together," McCain declared before the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in early June. "We are the most natural of allies. And, like Israel itself, that alliance is for ever."
Calling Israel "an inspiration to free nations everywhere," McCain barely addressed longstanding Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Like Bush, he denounced regional actors opposed to Israel's occupation of Arab land, referring to Hamas as "the terrorist-led group in charge of Gaza."
Neither Bush nor McCain so much as mention -- let alone criticise -- Israel's inhumane treatment of Palestinian populations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This treatment includes frequent military assaults often targeting civilians, the use of 'targeted assassinations', the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip (which has brought that territory to the brink of starvation), continued construction of Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land, and the forced removal of non-Jewish, Arab inhabitants from the city of Jerusalem.
Arab analysts, meanwhile, express little surprise at such blatant pro-Israel bias, coming as it does from a political party thoroughly influenced by the so-called "neo-conservative" movement, of which Israeli ascendancy is a central tenet.
More disturbing to Arab critics of U.S. policy is the fact that Democratic presidential contenders have shown just as much zeal for Israeli supremacy as their Republican rivals.
In his own speech to AIPAC in early June, Obama stressed the need for a "more nuanced" approach to U.S. Middle East peacemaking. He stunned many, however, when he went on to state that Jerusalem would "remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."
Although Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967, its claim to the city has never been recognised by the international community. Officially, the status of Jerusalem -- which Palestinians also want as capital of their future state -- is supposed to be determined in long-awaited "final status" negotiations.
Obama again disappointed Arabs by reiterating his overt support for Israel during a two-day visit to the Hebrew nation last week.
"I'm here...to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the U.S. and my abiding commitment to Israel's security," Obama told Israeli President Shimon Peres Jul. 23. Later, he told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of his "unshakeable commitment to Israel's security."
Obama went on to repeat his earlier statement that Jerusalem "will be" the capital of Israel, although he added that the issue should ultimately be decided in negotiations. He also backed Israel's refusal to negotiate with Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip for more than one year after winning legislative elections in early 2006.
While in Jerusalem, Obama visited the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he laid a commemorative wreath. He also visited the southern Israeli town Sderot, the occasional target of short-range rockets from the Gaza Strip, where he reaffirmed his support for Israel's right to defend itself "against those who threaten its people."
By contrast, Obama spent less than one hour in discussions with Palestinian Authority (PA) officials -- PA President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad -- in the West Bank. Not surprisingly, he did not meet with any Hamas representatives.
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Obama's blatant obeisance to Israel, despite an electoral campaign promising voters "change we can believe in," has led many Arabs to despair of the notion of unbiased arbitration by Washington -- under the leadership of either candidate.
"Obama paid his respects to dozens of Israeli victims in Sderot while neglecting to mention the thousands of recent Palestinian victims of Israeli violence," said Thabet. "How can anyone expect him to be even-handed on the issue when he becomes president?"
According to Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent weekly Sout al-Umma, neo-conservative ideology "is not exclusive to the Republicans, but permeates both political parties" in the U.S.
"When it comes to Israel, there's virtually no difference in Republican and Democratic party policies," Kandil told IPS. "The Democratic administration of (former U.S. president Bill) Clinton, for example, consisted of even more Jewish Zionists -- including the defence secretary (William Cohen), the secretary of state (Madeleine Albright) and the national security advisor (Samuel Berger) -- than the current Republican Bush administration.
"These people occupy most of the top political and military positions throughout the American political system," added Kandil. "Anyone who thinks Washington can serve as a fair mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict -- under Republicans or Democrats -- is delusional."
Kandil said the chief neo-conservative objectives are "securing Israel's presence in the Middle East, the return of the Jews to Israel, and the eventual construction of the Jewish temple on the site where the al-Aqsa mosque now stands."
According to Thabet, the neo-conservatives in Washington have exploited U.S. military might to neutralise regional opposition -- mainly of the Islamic variety -- to Israel.
"They have used U.S. military force to spread their version of 'democracy', which excludes all forms of political Islam -- be it Lebanon's Hezbollah, Hamas in Palestine or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood," said Thabet.
Some local observers suggest that the neo-conservatives in the current Bush administration, many of whom hold dual U.S.-Israel citizenship, are more beholden to Israel than to the U.S.
"These people have a greater attachment to Israel and world Zionism than they do to the U.S.," Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt's Labour Party, frozen by the government since 2000, told IPS. "But they have tried hard to convince the American public that U.S. and Israeli interests are one and the same."
Arab analysts further note that the neo-conservative influence extends beyond the U.S. political system and into western 'mainstream' media.
"The Zionist lobby can make or break any would-be presidential candidate," said Hussein. "This isn't due to its large voting numbers, but to its enormous influence on the media -- both in the U.S. and in Western Europe."
According to Thabet, the "Zionist influence" on the U.S. media has grown dramatically since the early 1980s. "Since then, neo-conservative elements have bought up many important American media institutions, including major news outlets," he said.
"This, along with the establishment of numerous 'research centres' and 'think-tanks', has been their primary means of promoting the neo-conservative agenda in the U.S.," Thabet added.
Kandil says most Arab governments -- in contrast to the people they represent -- are in any case not particularly interested in even-handed U.S. arbitration of the conflict.
"The Arab regimes don't look to Washington as a fair mediator -- they look to Washington to keep them in power, despite their lack of legitimacy and popularity," said Kandil. "The Israel-Palestine dispute can only reach a just resolution when the Arabs choose leaders able and willing to carry out the popular will."
© 2008 Inter Press Service