Will Palestinians have a "friend" in the White House if Barack Obama is elected president on Tuesday? Many supporters of the Palestinians think so or at least hope so. My advice to them: Don't hold your breath. Get too close to a Palestinian, or voice too much sympathy for his cause, it seems, and you're apt to be smeared as someone who is little better than a terrorist yourself. If you're an American politician whose middle name is Hussein, you really could be in for a hard time.
Most of the evidence that Obama is an Arab lover, despite his strongly pro-Israel campaign statements, centers on some of his associations and comments pre-dating his successful run for the U.S. Senate four years ago. He became friends and occasionally dined with Rashid Khalidi, a University of Chicago professor whose family is of Jerusalem origin. In 2003, Obama attended a farewell party for Khalidi, who was moving to Columbia University in New York. As the LA Times wrote about the event in a report last April:
Speaking to the crowd, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi's wife, Mona, and conversations that had challenged his thinking. His many talks with the Khalidis, Obama said, had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases... It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation -- a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table," but around "this entire world."
Whether it was heartfelt, as it apparently was, or just a politician playing to the room, the words strike you as a wonderfully enlightened if regrettably rare thing to say. At a time of massive misunderstanding between the West and the Islamic world--in 2003, at the time of the dinner party, as today--here was an American politician willing to be challenged in his acceptance of conventional wisdom about the Middle East.
Or, in private, anyway. If you do that too much in public--or if your private musings become public--such is the field for Muslim-baiting in America that you may have a problem if you are a politician. Imagine: here we were in the final week of a crucial election for president of the most powerful nation on earth, and what was the hot issue for too much of the press? Not the economy, not Iraq, but Obama's attendance at a party five years ago--a Muslim man's party. On Friday, the august NY Times, trying to keep in step with the media pack chasing the story, ran a 1,000-word profile of Khalidi, reported and written by no fewer than three of its journalists.
To be fair and put the blame mainly where it belongs, a McCain ploy is what sparked the obsession with Khalidi: His campaign unleashed the witch hunt by hinting darkly at Obama's secret connections with nefarious Middle East terrorists when it called on the LA Times to release the party videotape--as if it would show Osama bin Laden and Ahmadinejad were there, slapping Obama's back--"to provide a clearer link between Barack Obama and Rashid Khalidi."
That's detestable Muslim-baiting, whether McCain intended it that way or not.
The fact that Obama and Khalidi are friends is not a mystery to be unraveled, as McCain insinuates. What he and some of the media are suggesting is that Khalidi is a disreputable character, and that Obama showed irresponsible judgement in befriending such a man. The charge against Khalidi, an American citizen who was born and raised in the U.S., is that he is an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights, a very brash critic of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and of the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., and has links to the P.L.O.
Khalidi, as far as I know, is guilty on all three counts. But, so what? He is an academic with outstanding credentials, a prolific author and energetic teacher who headed the Middle East Institute at Columbia, one of America's most prestigious universities. He is a relatively rare prominent supporter of the Palestinian cause in the U.S., even as his voice is all but drowned out by American supporters of Israel. If he has offended some by using the words "Israel" and "apartheid" in the same sentence, that may be a misrepresentation to anyone who has lived under or witnessed white rule in South Africa, but former President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel peace prize winner, has made the same error.
Khalidi served as an advisor to the P.L.O.-vetted Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace conference in 1991. If you suggest there's something sinister about that, well, you may as well say that all Palestinians are bad guys, whether they're bombers or peace negotiators.
Funny thing about associating with Palestinians, the most unlikely people have been doing it. Did you know that the most frequent foreign VIP visitor to Bill Clinton's White House was none other than Mr. Terrorist himself, Yasser Arafat. (Psssstttt. On at least one occasion that I personally know of, Clinton called Arafat "my friend.")
But don't expect Barack and Michelle to host any Palestinian poetry readings at the White House. If they do, I doubt they'll let anybody videotape it. I hope the Khalidis at least get a dinner invitation from the First Family out of it. Obama's been freeloading off Rashid and Mona long enough now.
--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo