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Steven L. Spiegel

Steven L. Spiegel

Posted: November 8, 2010 04:55 PM

The midterm elections are over in the United States, and the cognoscenti who follow Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have a new consensus. The election is a victory for the Israeli right wing.

The theory is that President Obama, who has vigorously, but so far unsuccessfully, pursued direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians toward a settlement of their long-standing conflict, will not be able to do so as assiduously in the next two years. Those who make this argument claim that since the United States has more influence over the Israelis than the Palestinians, and will not be able to do anything tough with the Israelis, Obama will be emasculated. Besides, the current Israeli government will be even more reluctant to make concessions, confident that its Republican friends will save it from paying a price. The Palestinians -- reaching the same conclusion, will also become ever more truculent.

In addition, the president is likely to be preoccupied with trying to win the next election. According to the consensus, pressuring Israel to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough is not useful politically at home. Therefore, the result is that President Obama will hold off on trying to gain Israeli concessions to continue the talks, and they will languish, at least until early 2013.

Not so fast! The assumption that the president will be inhibited diplomatically because he does not wish to alienate voters is far more complex than it seems. First, President Obama has not been as tough on Israel as some would have us believe. Unfortunately, it is his public relations operation that has been very weak, and not just in the area of Middle East negotiations. The administration has allowed its political adversaries to paint every slight difference between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations as a major break in relations. That's poppycock,-wholly inaccurate and even more disappointing that the Obama team has not successfully countered it.

Second, Democrats historically have been more generous in actually providing Israel with assets, even as their rhetoric may not have quite the same "Israel right or wrong" ring to it as the Republicans. In point of fact, President Obama has actually been more active in supporting Israeli security needs in practical terms than was his predecessor. President Bush excelled at supporting Israel diplomatically and with resonating rhetoric without always giving Israel what it most needed in terms of security guarantees and equipment.

Third, the president continues in office, and the Democrats continue to hold the Senate, even though more precariously. The major difference is obviously in the House, and the Chairmanship of certain relevant committees. It is true that many Republicans will criticize Obama if he appears to be in another conflict with Israel. But, did the election really change that? This was true in the previous Congress as well, during the first two years of the Obama presidency. Let's remember that many Democrats joined in either for political or policy reasons or both when they thought the President was going too far in pressing Israel. Israel has enjoyed genuine bi-partisan support and that has been a vital underscore for its relations with the US; attempts to undermine that for political gain is nothing less than malicious.

Fourth, Congress does not have major authority in the diplomatic arena. Classically, the influence of Congress is in the area of providing aid and funds for Israel and in resolutions that try to tie the president's hands, but there are almost always loopholes to give the president some flexibility no matter who is in charge. For example, the Congress ordered the President to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 1995. It's still in Tel Aviv.

Significantly, the three greatest breakthroughs in American policy toward the Arab-Israeli dispute came when US Presidents were unpopular: after the October 1973 war when Watergate was raging; in the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of March 1979 under a beleaguered Carter; in the Madrid Conference in October 1991 when George HW Bush was beginning to lose his popularity. Even during the Clinton administration, Arab-Israeli diplomacy was separated from the President's peace process activity. Clinton's one major diplomatic success between Israelis and Palestinians came at the Wye Plantation in October 1998 just weeks before he was impeached by the House. Congress doesn't do diplomacy, and those who forget that do so at their peril.

Many one -- issue partisans of Israel assume that the new Congressional figures coming to Washington in January will be similar to those who arrived after the 1994 election. Those under Newt Gingrich's leadership created a revolution on the Arab-Israeli issue because of the new Republican heavy sympathy for the Israelis, coupled with a potent Christian right alliance. On the other hand, the Tea Party is not about foreign policy, nor was the election. It is about stimulus, debt, the economy, health care, and especially unemployment. More likely they will herald a new trend of isolationism that is never good for Israel.

The latest polls showed that American Jews still voted overwhelmingly for Democrats and were not particularly dissatisfied with the president's handling of foreign affairs, including the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But more importantly, polls also suggest that most American Jews are not preoccupied with Israel at the moment.

If the president wants to tangle with Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, very few people will care as long as he creates new jobs. It cannot be emphasized enough that classically and historically, if a president seeks to pursue diplomatic issues, there is little that the Congress can do to stop him. Of course, in the next election, if he is still perceived as failing in his diplomacy, it can and will be used against him. Therefore, it could well behoove the president to move forward to solidify his Middle East policy and his foreign policy reputation as a hedge against further criticisms of breakdown.

But even diplomatic success does not result in electoral victory: Nixon still resigned after Mideast diplomatic gains; Carter lost after Camp David; Bush 41 lost after the Madrid Conference. Arab-Israeli diplomacy, as opposed to the atmosphere of the US-Israeli relationship, is not connected to American politics. No President has ever won or lost because he made progress with Israelis and Arabs. Those who think they can manipulate American diplomacy at the polls are kidding themselves. Despite all the talk of American Jews being discouraged by Obama's Israel policy, and the cynical manipulation of that perception in the elections, the Republicans still only gained some 30% of the Jewish vote, which falls well within normal Jewish voting patterns.

Indeed, we have perhaps seen the new Obama in the recent past. This is a President who used carrots rather than sticks in trying to persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu to declare a two month settlement moratorium. Once the benefits that the president had offered were leaked, which included critical security and diplomatic guarantees and generous offers of additional practical support, the criticism of the president seemed to dampen dramatically. In the American context, it is hard to criticize any president for attempting to pursue diplomacy by trying to coax Israel to take more goodies from the United States, even if his offers are rejected.

So, if the right wing is celebrating in Israel, it should pause. The president is likely to remain extremely committed to pursuing his diplomatic objectives, notwithstanding a Republican midterm victory.