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Palestinian-Israeli conflict not on the campaign radar screen
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A Palestinian man harvests olives while an Israeli soldier stands guard after Palestinians were granted permission to cross the Israeli separation fence on October 21 near their West Bank village of Aneen. The Army said they would allow Palestinians to get to their olive groves for the annual harvest where they have been cut off from their West Bank lands by the barrier. (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
Middle East peace has hardly been mentioned in the presidential campaign. Neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry have talked much at all about their plans for a solution to the violence between Palestinians and Israelis. One likely reason the issue doesn't come up is there's very little to debate. Analysts say Bush and Kerry have virtually identical positions. They're both strong supporters of Israel. Even so, the issue's absence from the campaign dismays two Minnesotans with a personal stake in Middle East peace.

St. Paul, Minn. — Disappointed is a mild way to describe Duluth resident Gary Gordon's reaction to the disintegration of relations between Arabs and Israelis the past few years. Gordon, a Jew, meets regularly with others including Palestinian Americans to talk about what they can do to stop the violence.

"Both sides are concerned about who's the greatest victim, and they have to hear each other. They haven't done that. They're too concerned with themselves," Gordon says.

Duluth businessman Mahmoud Wazwaz, a Palestinian American, is part of the discussion group. He shares Gary Gordon's frustration that Arab-Israeli relations are not a campaign topic. He says the lack of debate is predictable in a country with a historic allegiance to Israel.

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Image Michael Barnett

"A lot of politicians -- when they run for president, they're always pro-Israel all the way. But once they're in office they come to the reality there has to be a solution," Wazwaz says.

Thousands have died in the latest round of violence between the two sides. The bulldozing of Palestinian homes, the suicide bombing of Israeli targets, the building of a concrete wall, make it difficult to imagine -- with the exception of all-out war -- how relations could be worse.

Middle East analysts Ken Stein, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and Michael Barnett, a professor at the University of Minnesota, say conditions have worsened.

"The prospects and promise were much greater in l993 than they are today," Stein says.

"I think it would be fair to say things have gone progressively from bad to worse over the last several years," Barnett says.

Stein says President Bush laid out his Middle East peace plan two years ago.

"He gave a speech in June 2002, in which he called for a Palestinian state living alongside Israel, he called for Palestinian reform, he called for the end of terrorism among the Palestinians," says Stein.

John Kerry's campaign Web site says he also favors the creation of a Palestinian state.

A lot of politicians -- when they run for president, they're always pro-Israel all the way. But once they're in office they come to the reality there has to be a solution.
- Mahmoud Wazwaz, a Palestinian American

The Bush administration's road map for Middle East peace outlines steps for de-escalating tensions. Experts say the goals are modest and the language general, to give the Palestinians and Israelis room for maneuvering. The road map does have firm deadlines. Michael Barnett says this country's failure to hold either side to the timetable is one reason conditions have spiraled downward.

"The United States was, for the most part, willing to allow various kinds of deadlines to pass, and willing to allow the parties not to come through on certain important aspects of the peace plan," Barnett says. "As a consequence, it would be fair to say that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have much faith in the road map after awhile."

Barnett says both candidates have been staunch supporters of Israel throughout their years in public life, so there's very little to joust over on the campaign trail or in their three debates.

"Senator Kerry has been a strong supporter of Israel; has made it clear that he believes the Israelis have the right to put up what the Israelis call the security fence; has made it clear that he thinks that assassination of prospective Palestinian terrorists is a legitimate act of self defense. So for the most part sounds a lot like the Bush administration," Barnett says.

Analyst Ken Stein says the only significant difference on Middle East peace policy between Bush and Kerry is one of style.

"A Kerry administration would probably be a lot more amenable to dealing with the allies on a whole range of issues -- including Irag, Iran, the Arab Israeli conflict, Korea -- whereas the Bush administration might find that more difficult, because of its policy of having gone somewhat alone in its effort to liberate Iraq," Stein says.

Duluth businessman Mahmoud Wazwaz was born in Jerusalem and moved to this country 20 years ago. He returns often to visit relatives. Wazwaz says Jews and Arabs share cultural roots.

"The more you get to know the other side, the more you get to know, respect and appreciate them, and you see them from a human point of view and not as an adversary. The less you know, the more you fear -- and the more you know the less you fear," Wazwas says.

Gary Gordon lived in Israel for a year, and returns often for humanitarian work. On most visits, he says, he and other members of a peace group called Children of Abraham meet jointly with Israelis and Palestinians to talk about the problems each side faces. He says the conversations are a model for what he says needs to happen to bring peace in the Middle East.

"I think the first thing they have to do is to learn to hear what it's like to suffer from the other's point of view, and to be that other person -- whether it's Palestinian or Israelis," Gordon says.

"And eventually where this leads is hopefully to reconciliation. "And for that to occur they're actually going to have to apologize to one another for the acts that they've done, the historical injustice. And when they do that and work towards reconciliation -- only that is going to make peace possible," says Gordon.

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