It was a celebration of Palestinian culture -- a night of music, dancing and a dash of politics. Local Arab Americans were bidding farewell to Rashid Khalidi, an internationally known scholar, critic of Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights, who was leaving town for a job in New York.
A special tribute came from Khalidi’s friend and frequent dinner companion, the young state Sen. Barack Obama. Speaking to the crowd, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi’s wife, Mona, and conversations that had challenged his thinking.
His many talks with the Khalidis, Obama said, had been “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases. . . . It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation -- a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,” but around “this entire world.”
Today, five years later, Obama is a U.S. senator from Illinois who expresses a firmly pro-Israel view of Middle East politics, pleasing many of the Jewish leaders and advocates for Israel whom he is courting in his presidential campaign. The dinner conversations he had envisioned with his Palestinian American friend have ended. He and Khalidi have seen each other only fleetingly in recent years.
And yet the warm embrace Obama gave to Khalidi, and words like those at the professor’s going-away party, have left some Palestinian American leaders believing that Obama is more receptive to their viewpoint than he is willing to say.
Their belief is not drawn from Obama’s speeches or campaign literature, but from comments that some say Obama made in private and from his association with the Palestinian American community in his hometown of Chicago, including his presence at events where anger at Israeli and U.S. Middle East policy was freely expressed.
At Khalidi’s 2003 farewell party, for example, a young Palestinian American recited a poem accusing the Israeli government of terrorism in its treatment of Palestinians and sharply criticizing U.S. support of Israel. If Palestinians cannot secure their own land, she said, “then you will never see a day of peace.”
One speaker likened “Zionist settlers on the West Bank” to Osama bin Laden, saying both had been “blinded by ideology.”
Obama adopted a different tone in his comments and called for finding common ground. But his presence at such events, as he worked to build a political base in Chicago, has led some Palestinian leaders to believe that he might deal differently with the Middle East than either of his opponents for the White House.
“I am confident that Barack Obama is more sympathetic to the position of ending the occupation than either of the other candidates,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow for the American Task Force on Palestine, referring to the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began after the 1967 war. More than his rivals for the White House, Ibish said, Obama sees a “moral imperative” in resolving the conflict and is most likely to apply pressure to both sides to make concessions.
“That’s my personal opinion,” Ibish said, “and I think it for a very large number of circumstantial reasons, and what he’s said.”
Aides say that Obama’s friendships with Palestinian Americans reflect only his ability to interact with a wide diversity of people, and that his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been consistent. Obama has called himself a “stalwart” supporter of the Jewish state and its security needs. He believes in an eventual two-state solution in which Jewish and Palestinian nations exist in peace, which is consistent with current U.S. policy.
Obama also calls for the U.S. to talk to such declared enemies as Iran, Syria and Cuba. But he argues that the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, is an exception, calling it a terrorist group that should renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist before dialogue begins. That viewpoint, which also matches current U.S. policy, clashes with that of many Palestinian advocates who urge the United States and Israel to treat Hamas as a partner in negotiations.
“Barack’s belief is that it’s important to understand other points of view, even if you can’t agree with them,” said his longtime political strategist, David Axelrod.
Obama “can disagree without shunning or demonizing those with other views,” he said. “That’s far different than the suggestion that he somehow tailors his view.”
Looking for clues
But because Obama is relatively new on the national political scene, and new to foreign policy questions such as the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides have been looking closely for clues to what role he would play in that dispute.
And both sides, on certain issues, have interpreted Obama’s remarks as supporting their point of view.
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.
Khalidi added that he strongly disagrees with Obama’s current views on Israel, and often disagreed with him during their talks over the years. But he added that Obama, because of his unusual background, with family ties to Kenya and Indonesia, would be more understanding of the Palestinian experience than typical American politicians.
“He has family literally all over the world,” Khalidi said. “I feel a kindred spirit from that.”
Ties with Israel
Even as he won support in Chicago’s Palestinian community, Obama tried to forge ties with advocates for Israel.
In 2000, he submitted a policy paper to CityPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, that among other things supported a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a position far out of step from that of his Palestinian friends. The PAC concluded that Obama’s position paper “suggests he is strongly pro-Israel on all of the major issues.”
In 2002, as a rash of suicide bombings struck Israel, Obama sought out a Jewish colleague in the state Senate and asked whether he could sign on to a measure calling on Palestinian leaders to denounce violence. “He came to me and said, ‘I want to have my name next to yours,’ ” said his former state Senate colleague Ira Silverstein, an observant Jew.
As a presidential candidate, Obama has won support from such prominent Chicago Jewish leaders as Penny Pritzker, a member of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain, and who is now his campaign finance chair, and from Lee Rosenberg, a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Nationally, Obama continues to face skepticism from some Jewish leaders who are wary of his long association with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who had made racially incendiary comments during several sermons that recently became widely known. Questions have persisted about Wright in part because of the recent revelation that his church bulletin reprinted a Times op-ed from last year written by a Hamas leader.
One Jewish leader said he viewed Obama’s outreach to Palestinian activists, such as Said, in the light of his relationship to Wright.
“In the context of spending 20 years in a church where now it is clear the anti-Israel rhetoric was there, was repeated, . . . that’s what makes his presence at an Arab American event with a Said a greater concern,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director for the Anti-Defamation League.