Arabs’ age-old election dilemma

Arabs’ age-old election dilemma

Arabs’ age-old election dilemma
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave placards and Palestinian flags at a mass rally in support of Gaza in London. (AFP)
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The upcoming elections in the US and UK present an age-old dilemma for Arab communities in both countries: who to vote for when there is little separating the major parties regarding the Middle East and, at a time of particular crisis such as now, whether to vote at all.

In the 2004 American election and the 2005 British election, the big issue for Arabs was Iraq. Now it is Palestine. And, in both cases, the “opposition” provided no opposition. This poses a quandary for Arabs because it undermines the value and effect of a protest vote.

The “Abandon Biden” movement, which has made its presence felt in the primaries, reflects anger among Arab Americans and their allies that is entirely justified given the president’s aiding and abetting of Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

And just as Arab Americans demonstrated that their vote helped elect Joe Biden in 2020, there is political value — and moral satisfaction — in showing that they can hurt his chances of reelection.

But that will have no tangible effect on US support for Israel because Donald Trump would be no different. In his case, we have evidence not just in terms of rhetoric but in a previous presidential term, during which, for example, he broke with decades of American policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Even Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, for all his verbal opposition to Israeli settlement expansion on Palestinian land, signed off on $38 billion in military assistance to Israel, the largest such aid package in US history. So, for Arabs, when it comes to Palestine, it does not matter whether the White House is occupied by a Democrat or a Republican.

The Abandon Biden campaign must know this and, while its supporters may celebrate if he is voted out, they will no doubt struggle internally with their role in the reelection of Trump, who has boasted that he “fought for Israel like no president ever before.” And unlike the Republicans, there are at least elements of the Democratic Party that are sympathetic to the Palestinians. 

For Arabs, when it comes to Palestine, it does not matter whether the White House is occupied by a Democrat or a Republican.

Sharif Nashashibi

In a sense, the situation in the UK is reversed because Keir Starmer, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has arguably come under greater pressure over Gaza than Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

This is largely due to three factors: higher expectations of a former human rights barrister than a staunchly pro-Israel prime minister, more sympathy for the Palestinians within the Labour Party than among the Conservatives, and the near certainty that Starmer will resoundingly defeat Sunak at the ballot box this year.

“It is clear that Keir Starmer’s stance on the Gaza conflict has been unpopular among many Labour supporters,” wrote Matthew Smith, head of data journalism at polling organization YouGov. And among the wider electorate, a YouGov survey conducted from Feb. 29 to March 1 revealed that only 14 percent of Britons think Starmer has handled Labour’s response well, compared to 52 percent who say he has handled it badly.

However, unlike in the US, where a protest vote could materially affect the election result, the Conservatives’ impending electoral drubbing in the UK renders a protest vote against Starmer inconsequential.

One need only look at the results of Thursday’s local elections in the UK. Labour’s campaign chief Pat McFadden acknowledged that Starmer’s stance on Gaza had an impact on votes, but the elections were still a resounding success for the party.

Unlike in America’s two-party system, there are smaller parties in the UK that are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but they have no chance at governing and the expected size of Labour’s victory in the upcoming general election means it will not need coalition partners. 

The debacle of the occupation of Iraq did not stop its architect and his staunchest ally from being reelected.

Sharif Nashashibi

Since at least the Second Intifada, opinion polls have shown greater sympathy in the UK toward the Palestinians than toward Israel. And that sympathy is gaining ground even in the US, which would have been unthinkable not long ago. But in both countries, that is not translating to a change in government policy. This is certainly disappointing but it is unsurprising.

Arab communities in the West often give equal importance to domestic and foreign policy, and sometimes — particularly during times of crisis — even prioritize the latter. But this is not the case among the wider public. Domestic affairs are almost always a greater concern to voters, even if a specific foreign policy is highly contentious.

So, while members of the public in the US and UK may sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, it is less likely to sway their vote than, for example, the economy or immigration. Indeed, the debacle of the occupation of Iraq did not stop its architect and his staunchest ally — George W. Bush and Tony Blair, respectively — from being reelected.

Given all this, Arab voters are now, as in the past, faced with three choices, none of which are attractive: vote for a candidate whose Middle East policy is unpalatable, vote for a party with no chance of governing, or do not vote at all. I understand the arguments for and against each option and have chosen all three at various times in my life, but always with a heavy heart.

This dilemma reflects Arabs’ historical sense of disenfranchisement from political systems in which no major party represents them or their interests. And the solution to this is only long term. The hope is that Arabs’ increased political and electoral participation over the years will eventually encourage politicians to choose genuine engagement rather than hostility, indifference or lip service.

They can look to other communities in the US and UK — Jewish, Black, Hispanic, Asian — as examples. But that kind of change is generational, so although worthwhile — vital, in fact — it offers no solace to the people of Gaza today, nor to Arabs and their supporters who, later this year, will have to choose between candidates who have all defended Israel’s atrocities.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.

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