Published November 20, 2014
Palestinians complained Tuesday that the Mideast peace process barely got a mention in the final U.S. presidential campaign debate, saying American standing in the Middle East will be doomed without a greater effort to resolve the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Such sentiments were shared regionwide, as officials and analysts noted that President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney expressed few differences on key issues such as Iran's suspect nuclear program, the war in Afghanistan and the tumultuous changes of the Arab spring.
"It's true that Obama doesn't have a coherent policy toward the Arab world but neither does Romney," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "What we saw last night is depressing lack of new ideas for U.S. policy in the Middle East."
While neither Obama nor Romney spoke much about the Israel-Palestinian conflict during Monday night's debate, both men voiced heavy support for Israel's security in an apparent gesture to influential Jewish voters.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said he understood the candidates are wary about discussing the sensitive conflict just two weeks before the election.
"But it should be clear to the United States that without solving the Palestinians-Israeli conflict, there will be no success for American policy in the Middle East," he said.
The Palestinians have grown disillusioned with Obama, who took office promising to make the peace process a top priority and to take a tough stand against Israeli settlements in occupied territories.
Instead, Obama failed to persuade Israel to halt settlement construction, and substantive peace efforts have remained frozen throughout his term. The Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table without a settlement freeze, saying continued Israeli construction in occupied territories they claim is a sign of bad faith.
At the same time, the Palestinians are deeply wary of Romney, who declared earlier this year that the Palestinians have "no interest whatsoever" in peace.
Romney's long friendship with hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his alliance with Jewish-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a strong Netanyahu supporter, have further raised their suspicions.
During Monday's debate, the two candidates seemed to be trying to outdo each other in their support for Israel's security, mentioning the threats posed to the Jewish state by Iran, the civil war in neighboring Syria and militant groups armed with rockets.
Romney briefly criticized Obama's failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts but gave no clue as to how he would promote peace. It was the only time in the debate that the Palestinians were even mentioned.
"It was a sin of omission, and it was clearly the elephant in the room," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"They are talking about peace, stability, democracy, freedom and human rights, and they both didn't touch the Palestinian question, which is the main issue in the region that's the key to peace and embodies the need for human rights and role of law and justice," she said.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev declined comment on the debate.
Calling Iran the "greatest threat of all," Romney claimed Iran is "four years closer to a nuclear weapon."
Obama repeated his position that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and vowed to "stand with Israel" if it is attacked by Iran.
Israel, accusing Iran of developing an atomic bomb, has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran's nuclear program if it believes international sanctions have failed.
Iran, which says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, accused the candidates of pandering to Israel.
"The debate was a race between the two candidates to demonstrate their greater devotion to the Zionist regime," said Iran's state TV.
Romney also supported Obama's increased use of drones to target militants in Pakistan's tribal region — a highly controversial program in Pakistan where people view it as a violation of their sovereignty and as killing innocent civilians — and said he too would have carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
"I think that in substance there was very little to distinguish between the positions taken by the president and Mitt Romney," said retired Pakistani diplomat Tariq Fatemi. "It would mean that both political parties, barring some other development, they will pursue the same policy with Pakistan."
Both also said they oppose direct U.S. military involvement in the civil war in which rebels are fighting to topple Syrian President Bashir Assad. But they disagreed over arming the Syrian opposition.
Obama warned of the risk of giving the rebels heavy weapons that could later be used against the U.S. or its allies. Romney said he would make sure that those trying to oust Assad "have the arms necessary to defend themselves" after being vetted by the U.S.
Romney's stance won praise from Syria's political opposition in exile.
"Obama is not doing what he is supposed to be doing. By not arming the (rebel) Free Syrian Army with heavy weapons, he is giving Assad the upper hand," said Muhieddine Lathkani, a member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella of opposition groups.
In discussing the Egyptian revolution, which swept longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak from power and brought an Islamist president to power, Romney and Obama both voiced caution.
Obama welcomed the democratic transition in Egypt but stressed the need to respect women's rights and maintain its peace agreement with Israel.
Romney used somewhat tougher language, implying that the election of President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was among "a number of disturbing events."
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan sharply criticized Romney, noting Morsi was elected in Egypt's first democratic election in history.
"Romney should respect the principle of not interfering in other countries' affairs," Ghozlan said.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Karin Laub in Beirut, Rebecca Santana in Islamabad, Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Maggie Fick in Cairo contributed to this report.