WASHINGTON – At a time of some of the worst fighting in years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (search) wasn't even mentioned in last week's presidential debate and has been little discussed during the campaign.
That may not be such a bad thing, some analysts say.
The differences between President Bush (search) and Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) on the issue aren't great, public attention to the conflict has faded and the political talk often has more to do with winning Jewish votes than laying out a serious strategy, they say.
"I think it's just as well to leave it alone," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations. "They get trapped in the rhetoric and one of them is going to be president and this issue will hit them probably in the very first day, if not before."
It's a marked change from the high priority President Clinton gave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his administration. Today, the focus of Americans' attention in the Middle East has shifted to Iraq and the fight against terrorism.
Yet the Israeli-Palestinian violence continues. Hours before Thursday's debate, Israeli troops battled masked gunmen in a large Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, killing 28 Palestinians and wounding 131. The assaults followed a Hamas rocket attack that killed two Israeli children Wednesday.
Fighting throughout the weekend brought the death toll to more than 60 Palestinians and three Israelis.
Both Bush and Kerry mentioned Israel in the debate, but only in the context of Iraq. The Palestinians weren't mentioned.
The most obvious reason why the candidates didn't talk about the conflict is that they weren't asked. In the 90-minute debate, moderator Jim Lehrer's questions dealt mostly with Iraq, terrorism and other hot issues.
"They had bigger fish to fry — even though it's of vital importance," said Allen Keiswetter of the Middle East Institute think tank.
Still, the candidates could have found a way to bring up the conflict had it been a priority. But it wasn't, said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at University of Maryland.
"Neither one of them was anxious to highlight the issue," he said. "They see it as an unaddressed problem, but they're not anxious to spend a lot of effort debating it because it's not on the agenda for the American public."
It's also not an area where the candidates can highlight stark differences. Both candidates stress Israel's democracy and its deep friendship with the United States. Neither opposes Israel's plans for a 425-mile-long security barrier in the West Bank that has drawn international condemnation. Both have denounced Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Their language has been similar in courting Jewish audiences. Bush has said: "The United States is strongly committed, and I am strongly committed, to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state." Kerry has said: "The people of Israel should also know that, as president, my commitment to a safe and secure Jewish state will be unwavering."
Kerry has promised to pay more attention to the Israel-Palestinian conflict than Bush has and do more to cut off funds to terrorist groups that target Israel. The Bush campaign has pointed to Kerry's reference to Arafat in a 1997 book as a "statesman" and his comments last year critical of the security barrier.
The Jewish vote could be particularly important in Florida and other battleground states. Republicans hope Bush will get a larger share of the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote given his strong support for Israel and close relationship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has diminished in prominence in the United States, it receives tremendous attention in the rest of the world. Foreign leaders, especially from Arab nations, say the United States' strong support for Israel undermines its credibility among Muslims. Many say that makes it harder to win support in fighting terrorism and in the Iraq war.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said ignoring the issue during the debate was an indication that both candidates view the conflict "through Sharon's eyes," sending the region further down the road of "chaos, extremism and darkness."
"I think they should focus not on siding with Israel, but on making the Middle East a more stable and peaceful place," Erekat said.
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said the candidates sidestepped the issue because the U.S. view of the Middle East has changed since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"Iraq dominates everything, and the way Iraq dominates everything is not in the broader Middle East sense but in how it concerns Americans," Alpher said. "Israel is a non-issue in this election to a large extent."
Maryland's Telhami said some overseas may have been disappointed that it hadn't come up in the debate, but they might have been more disappointed with the candidates' responses if it had.
"I think in some ways it's a no-win situation internationally," he said.