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Allies of Palestinians see a friend in Obama

CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

They consider him receptive despite his clear support of Israel.

April 10, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

Last year, for example, Obama was quoted saying that "nobody's suffering more than the Palestinian people." The candidate later said the remark had been taken out of context, and that he meant that the Palestinians were suffering "from the failure of the Palestinian leadership [in Gaza] to recognize Israel" and to renounce violence.

Jewish leaders were satisfied with Obama's explanation, but some Palestinian leaders, including Ibish, took the original quotation as a sign of the candidate's empathy for their plight.

Obama's willingness to befriend Palestinian Americans and to hear their views also impressed, and even excited, a community that says it does not often have the ear of the political establishment.

Among other community events, Obama in 1998 attended a speech by Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor and a leading intellectual in the Palestinian movement. According to a news account of the speech, Said called that day for a nonviolent campaign "against settlements, against Israeli apartheid."

The use of such language to describe Israel's policies has drawn vehement objection from Israel's defenders in the United States. A photo on the pro-Palestinian website the Electronic Intifada shows Obama and his wife, Michelle, engaged in conversation at the dinner table with Said, and later listening to Said's keynote address. Obama had taken an English class from Said as an undergraduate at Columbia University.

Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian rights activist in Chicago who helps run Electronic Intifada, said that he met Obama several times at Palestinian and Arab American community events. At one, a 2000 fundraiser at a private home, Obama called for the U.S. to take an "evenhanded" approach toward Israel, Abunimah wrote in an article on the website last year. He did not cite Obama's specific criticisms.

Abunimah, in a Times interview and on his website, said Obama seemed sympathetic to the Palestinian cause but more circumspect as he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. At a dinner gathering that year, Abunimah said, Obama greeted him warmly and said privately that he needed to speak cautiously about the Middle East.

Abunimah quoted Obama as saying that he was sorry he wasn't talking more about the Palestinian cause, but that his primary campaign had constrained what he could say.

Obama, through his aide Axelrod, denied he ever said those words, and Abunimah's account could not be independently verified.

"In no way did he take a position privately that he hasn't taken publicly and consistently," Axelrod said of Obama. "He always had expressed solicitude for the Palestinian people, who have been ill-served and have suffered greatly from the refusal of their leaders to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist."

In Chicago, one of Obama's friends was Khalidi, a highly visible figure in the Arab American community.

In the 1970s, when Khalidi taught at a university in Beirut, he often spoke to reporters on behalf of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. In the early 1990s, he advised the Palestinian delegation during peace negotiations. Khalidi now occupies a prestigious professorship of Arab studies at Columbia.

He is seen as a moderate in Palestinian circles, having decried suicide bombings against civilians as a "war crime" and criticized the conduct of Hamas and other Palestinian leaders. Still, many of Khalidi's opinions are troubling to pro-Israel activists, such as his defense of Palestinians' right to resist Israeli occupation and his critique of U.S. policy as biased toward Israel.

While teaching at the University of Chicago, Khalidi and his wife lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood near the Obamas. The families became friends and dinner companions.

In 2000, the Khalidis held a fundraiser for Obama's unsuccessful congressional bid. The next year, a social service group whose board was headed by Mona Khalidi received a $40,000 grant from a local charity, the Woods Fund of Chicago, when Obama served on the fund's board of directors.

At Khalidi's going-away party in 2003, the scholar lavished praise on Obama, telling the mostly Palestinian American crowd that the state senator deserved their help in winning a U.S. Senate seat. "You will not have a better senator under any circumstances," Khalidi said.

The event was videotaped, and a copy of the tape was obtained by The Times.

Though Khalidi has seen little of Sen. Obama in recent years, Michelle Obama attended a party several months ago celebrating the marriage of the Khalidis' daughter.

In interviews with The Times, Khalidi declined to discuss specifics of private talks over the years with Obama. He did not begrudge his friend for being out of touch, or for focusing more these days on his support for Israel -- a stance that Khalidi calls a requirement to win a national election in the U.S., just as wooing Chicago's large Arab American community was important for winning local elections.

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