Israelis had mixed reactions to the Democratic landslide in America’s elections last week. Jews were largely apathetic, yet many Arabs followed them closely, hoping that the results would bring a change to American policies in the Middle East.
Hani Smadar, 25, a cashier at a Jerusalem supermarket, didn’t even know about the elections: “I’ll tell you something, I’m not so interested. I don’t follow the news.”
Gilad Binyamin, a stocky 33-year old with a knitted yarmulke on his head, said he was aware that elections took place in America, “and I know who won, but it doesn’t really interest me,” he said. “I have no opinion on the issue. I just don’t think it will have any effect on my life.” If Israelis seemed clueless about the Democratic victory and its implications, so did their prime minister, Ehud Olmert. In a press conference with President Bush, he expressed his support for the war in Iraq, raising the ire of the new power holders whose primary reason for winning was the failure of the war in Iraq.
Israelis are confident that they will continue to get American financial and diplomatic support, whether Democrats or Republicans rule.
“I don’t think it really matters,” said Ro’i Ohayon, 22, a recently discharged soldier. “Israel will always get its benefits from the U.S. I know that sounds really bad to an American audience, but it’s true.”
He paused, and then added, “What I do know is that they chose 13 Jewish senators.”
Political scandals and last summer’s bruising Lebanon war have taken their toll on Israeli society, too. “We have enough problems on the home front,” said Avigail Goldberg, 49, as she sat in a doctor’s office waiting for a blood test, her hair covered with a black scarf. “I think Olmert is a bigger problem than anybody.”
Goldberg, an American-born engineer who moved to Israel in the 1980s, said she is a Democrat at heart who believes in the party’s social platform. But, she said, she fears that the party she used to vote for is “naive about what is going on in the rest of the world.”
By contrast, Palestinian Arabs seemed to follow the elections closely. Those interviewed, from politicians to farmers, said they believed that the results would directly affect their lives and the region. Most Arabs said they were pleased with the results.
“I think the result of the U.S. elections will affect the situation here in Palestine — maybe not immediately, but it will be positive for the Palestinians,” said Atef Adwan, minister of refugee affairs in the Palestinian Authority’s Hamas-led government. “We suffered a lot from U.S. policies, and we want some change in them.”
Adwan said that Israeli artillery struck his hometown of Beit Hanoun as he was watching the American election returns on television. Mistakenly, homes were hit and 20 people were killed, including six of his relatives: an aunt, uncle and four cousins.
Ahmed Deek, a member of the rival Fatah party, also followed the elections and expressed satisfaction at the results. “We hope that the Democrats will be more positive towards the Palestinians and the Arabs in general — more than [the American government] was in the past,” Deek said in a phone call from his home in Salfit in the West Bank. “I think this will improve the security coordination between us, the Israelis, the Americans and all the Middle East. We oppose terrorism.”
The Democrats’ victory can only help the Palestinian cause if other countries pressure the Democrats, said Abu Ziyad al-Ghol, a retired accountant who now tends his farm in Beit Lahiya in Gaza.
“The situation in the Middle East is not the top item on their agenda,” Ghol said in a phone interview. “But if there is pressure from the European community and the Arab governments, there will be positive results for us.”
Adwan, the Hamas lawmaker, expects change will take place. “I think now there will be some sort of balance between the presidency and Congress,” he said. “We know that Bush supports any action by the Israelis ,and the Democrats used to also. But now that might change because it affects the reputation of the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim world.”
Ahmed Hassan, 37, an Israeli Arab from the village of Ibillin, had even higher hopes. He wanted peace.
“I heard that George Bush failed in the elections,” said Hassan, a father of three. “In my opinion this is a result of his actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. His plans failed. People were killed, including soldiers. I think [the Democrats] will slowly change things in this area, because that’s what they were chosen to do. People now need to think only how to achieve peace here.”
Only one Palestinian contacted by the Forward seemed uninformed about the elections. “I heard that there were some elections for Bush and some other groups, but I don’t really know much about it,” said 22-year-old Ahmed Albaz, who lives in Bureij refugee camp in Gaza and works as a clerk in the Ministry of Health.
Then he added: “People here don’t want Bush. They say he is a man of war.”
Iraqis had mixed views. Some felt the situation in their country was already beyond repair.
Said Salih, a 35-year-old day laborer in Baghdad, was pessimistic. “I don’t think the results will affect the general situation here, and I don’t think the Americans will leave Iraq,” he said in a phone call from his home. Since America’s invasion of Iraq, violence has escalated to incredible heights and a low-scale civil war is taking place, with scores of people kidnapped and murdered on a daily basis. Electricity is sporadic, and government services are poor. Salih heard about the results of the elections from others. “We don’t have electricity, so I couldn’t watch television.”
An educated young Iraqi, who asked not to be named, said he stayed up all night watching the American voting, holding his breath over Montana and Virginia. Like tens of thousands of his compatriots, he is now living in Amman, Jordan, where he fled for safety. He hopes the Democrats’ win will be the beginning of the end to America’s occupation in Iraq and open a new chapter for the Middle East. “Finally,” he said of the Republicans, “we got rid of those bastards.”