The Magazine

Where the Jews Vote Republican

One thing Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is that Obama is bad news.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By WILLY STERN
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Ramallah and Sderot

My Palestinian driver insists we stop by Arafat's tomb to pay our respects. He explains the etiquette: Visitors can either say a prayer or salute. On the 45-minute drive north to Ramallah from Jerusalem, he had referenced the "f--ing Jews" so quickly and often that I figured there was no upside to disclosing my own Jewish heritage. I'm just another American scribe on a day-trip to the West Bank, wondering how to deal with the late PLO leader. At the tomb, I quietly mutter under my breath a Jewish prayer in Hebrew--the "Sh'ma" for you chosen people keeping score at home. Crisis avoided; we are back on the road.

Next stop in downtown Ramallah is the hoity-toity Plaza Mall. Inside is a fabulous supermarket that rivals the Kroger where I shop in my hometown of Nashville. The deep piles of fresh fruit--mostly imported from Israel with Hebrew lettering on the boxes--are impressive, as is the array of fresh fish. The children's indoor play space upstairs has a bumper-car arena.

New, chic apartment buildings with commanding views are being thrown up on the hillsides. My driver takes me up a steep hill to view what he calls a "million-dollar home" under construction at the top. There are signs of poverty around but clearly not everyone in the West Bank fits neatly under the umbrella of "oppressed." It turns out that there is a stock market in Nablus (it's called the Al-Quds Index), and it's outperforming the Dow.

I'm in Ramallah to try to find someone--anybody will do--who's supporting Barack Obama for president. The theory is that even if Israel remains an overwhelming red state, at least the Palestinians may have some sympathy for the junior senator from Illinois. After all, the one thing that Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is that George W. Bush has been the most pro-Israel U.S. president ever. This fact, it is widely assumed here, pushes Palestinian voters towards Obama, whilst driving Jews to line up solidly behind McCain.

This hypothesis is certainly espoused by Hanna Siniora, a soft-spoken and reflective Palestinian who is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a left-tilting think tank in Jerusalem. "The Palestinians are nauseated with Bush," he reports. "Plus if your middle name is Hussein, well that's not a negative in this neighborhood."

Because Obama is black, Siniora adds, many Palestinians feel that he will sympathize with their plight, as fellow oppressed people. Siniora predicts that 80 percent of adults in the West Bank support Obama, and 99 percent in the more radicalized Gaza Strip. In April, Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef told WABC Radio, "We like Mr. Obama, and we hope he will win the election." Even though the endorsement was later rescinded, it's not the type of backing Obama is seeking as he tries to woo the Goldsteins of Boca Raton and the Ginsbergs of Shaker Heights.

To test the theory, I go to see Ramallah's top pollster, Khalil Shikaki. He has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, writes op-eds for the New York Times and Washington Post, and has taught at Brandeis. Shikaki runs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research out of his office in a well-appointed building atop a Subaru dealership. The building wouldn't be out of place in downtown Tulsa. He has recent polling data on Obama. A late August survey indicated that a scant 9.9 percent of Palestinians thought an Obama presidency would have a "positive effect" on the Palestinian question. Apparently, the "audacity of hope" mantra doesn't fly in Arabic.

Shikaki said he hadn't expected "such a large percentage of negative results" for Obama. He supposes that Palestinians--whether they are Fatah supporters in the West Bank or Hamas supporters in Gaza--think both American candidates are heavily biased in favor of Israel and therefore equally bad.

Shikaki is aware of comments from Obama that appear to paint the Democratic candidate as being more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than is McCain. At a Democratic primary debate, Obama said "nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people," and he told the Atlantic the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a "constant wound" and "constant sore" that "infect[s] all our foreign policy" and "provides an excuse for anti-American Jihadists."