The loneliness of the One-Issue Voter

The road to the White House goes through Jerusalem: Then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon meets with US Senator Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem, November 2005. (Inbal Rose/MaanImages)


Although I am now officially middle-aged, only once have I felt the excitement of waking up to the joyous news that my candidate won the US presidential elections. That was way back in 1992 when Bill Clinton was first elected.

I was living in Nazareth, conducting my dissertation research. When I found out Clinton had been elected, I let out a whoop of joy and believed that a new era of sanity, justice and decency had dawned.

Several months later, I began to wonder. While at a conference in Jerusalem I picked up a copy of
New York Times. The lead story in the magazine, entitled “St. Hillary,” featured a cover photo of Hillary Clinton dressed completely in white and looking quite self-righteous. In the course of reading the article, I learned that while in Law School at Yale, Hillary had decided, during a classroom debate about Palestine/Israel, that some people were “simply evil,” and thus had no rights because they undertook terrorist actions. (I’m not sure if she was still a registered Republican back then …)

I wished my Palestinian friends and neighbors could sit and chat with Hillary Clinton for a little while about the daily realities and systematic discrimination that they faced then — and face even more so now — under occupation. Now a particularly exciting election year is upon us. Before the Democratic race narrowed down to Obama and Clinton, I was rooting for Dennis Kucinich, because his message resonated with my “Big Issue”: fair, just, and sane US foreign policies in the Middle East and outrage at the treatment of the Palestinian people.

There are lots of “One Issue Voters” out here: those who decide to support a candidate based on the sole criterion of abortion, or taxation, or gun control, or crime. For those of us who fall into the “Pro-Palestinian Rights” category of One Issue Voter-hood, it’s a particularly lonely and dispiriting time. It’s as though there’s this big progressive celebration going on, but we haven’t been invited.

Discussing the upcoming elections with friends and colleagues is uncomfortable. Should one support Hillary because she’s likely to win the nomination anyway, and because it’s imperative to get the Republicans out of the White House? Should one support Obama because he represents a challenge to the ossified cadres of Clintonites who assume that they are entitled to the presidency simply because they have amassed the money and the elite backing to waltz back into the White House? Should one support Republican Ron Paul, because he promises to cut all aid to Israel and end US intervention in the Middle East? Should those of us who care passionately about the human rights of Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis try to be “realistic” and vote for which ever candidate seems most likely to regain the White House and restore respect for the Constitution?

It annoys me that so many people I speak with say “Palestinian rights? Come on! Get real! No one can run for any office and succeed if they bring up that issue! There are other pressing crises that are much more important!” And they are not wrong to say so. Class disparities in the US are growing. Health care and insurance reform are absolutely crucial.

Looking at Obama’s and Clinton’s stances on some of these pressing issues, I should be excited. I just can’t get mobilized and committed, though, because both have shown utter spinelessness about the key issue at the heart of the United States’ misguided, destructive, and unjust policies in the Middle East: The question of Palestine. On the Republican side, frontrunner John McCain has recently gone out of his way to emphasize his decades-long record of unconditional support for Israel.

This is not a marginal, fringe issue to be swept aside. The fact that no candidate dares to speak out against US-funded Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and a raft of UN resolutions is a primary index of something horribly wrong at the heart of American politics.

Last summer, I watched a CNN broadcast during which the Democratic hopefuls underwent a cable catechism examination administered by Soledad O’Brien. Former Senator John Edwards and Clinton were grilled on their personal faith and how it has helped them in their private lives.

Obama got the booby-trapped political question: “Are Palestinians treated badly by Israel?” His answer was lame, and appeared ill-informed. Given that he is probably not ill-informed, however, it might have been dishonest. Obama responded that “although Palestinians are often put in situations that we would not want our own families to endure,” it was sadly necessitated by the paramount need to safeguard Israelis from dangerous terrorists.

Obama is a lawyer. He should know something about the Geneva Conventions. He should know a bit about Israeli violations of international law, and the dozens of UN resolutions that have criticized the Israeli government and called for an end to the occupation.

Despite increasing activism, the existence of alternative news media, and growing public discomfort with the Bush administration’s Middle East misadventures, it’s really disappointing that an attractive front-runner in this key election did not feel secure enough to tell the truth. The public is way out in front of Congress on this issue, but given the demands of campaign funding and the fear of the sorts of underhanded attacks that AIPAC (the American Israeli Public Action Committee, i.e., the pro-Israel lobby) inflicts on those who deviate from a pro-Israeli narrative, anyone who hopes to attain office in Washington, DC is held hostage to the lobby’s single-minded goal of assuring unconditional support for Israel no matter how badly it behaves.

There are those who say the lobby is not really that strong, serves as a bete noire for people who are possibly anti-Semitic, or is simply a healthy expression of active citizen participation in the US legislative process. Of course the lobby does not single-handedly control US foreign policy, but the depressing reality is that few candidates have the spinal fortitude to diverge from its narrative or to question its aims at election time.

Many — even most — in the American Jewish community are indifferent to or appalled by AIPAC’s rhetoric, so it is not even representative of Jewish voters in the US.

And as depressing as the political scene may appear, this is where hope and opportunity lie. If concerned Americans want to support the rule of law at home and abroad, and support peace with justice around the world, they could find few better starting points than joining the international campaign to end the Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and other abuses. This means loudly opposing the unconditional diplomatic and military support that successive administrations have given to Israel, and challenging the candidates at every opportunity to respond directly to the mountain of factual evidence of Israel’s abuses. This will not bear fruits in one election cycle, but it has to start.

Survey after survey shows that around the world, US support for Israeli violations remains a key motivator of anti-American sentiment. And yet in this country there’s not even a debate about it among our leaders. Americans need to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ongoing Israeli infractions of international law through its occupation of Palestinian lands more openly and critically. Brave and honest presidential candidates can and should be at the forefront of such needed political discussions.

If raising these issues, and using them as important criteria for choosing which presidential candidate to support, is a “non-starter” beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse in the Democratic or Republican parties then there really are no grounds for the excitement and rhetoric about change and transformation surrounding this election. There’s no easy answer for the voter who cares about justice in Palestine. Yes, we should vote, but our activism has to go beyond simply marking a ballot on election day.

Laurie King-Irani is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and the managing editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies in Washington, DC and a lecturer in anthropology at Georgetown University.

Editor’s Note: Although EI may run pieces analyzing the stated views of various candidates and political figures in order to educate readers about their positions, EI does not endorse political candidates for office. This piece represents the views of the author.

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