A big Republican victory on Nov. 2 could bring the Obama administration’s troubled domestic agenda to a dead stop — but it is unlikely to do the same for its faltering Middle East peace efforts, which some Israelis argue favor the Palestinians.
In fact, it could have the opposite result, said Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida political scientist and director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies.
“What you usually find is that presidents who feel handcuffed on domestic politics put their energies into foreign policy in hopes of achieving success where they have more autonomy and room to maneuver,” Wald said. “[President Barack] Obama doesn’t really need Congress to sign on at this point.”
Other political scientists and activists argue that Obama, while likely to turn to greater foreign involvement overall, is unlikely to intensify his focus on Middle East peace talks. This is largely because few administration officials see any real likelihood negotiations will advance, and because they will be loath to give the Republicans a battering-ram issue to use against Obama in 2012.
A Republican Congress may “constrain the administration” when it comes to aggressive Middle East diplomacy, said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv. “There will be less appetite for putting pressure on Israel. But I’m not sure that matters, since it’s clearly not a priority for the administration right now.”
Domestic politics and unfavorable conditions on both sides will further limit the administration’s willingness to offset domestic losses with dramatic Middle East peace moves, Walker said.
While policy may drive some of the Middle East action in the next Congress, politics will never be far from the surface.
“What you have to understand is that whether or not the Republicans take one or both houses, everything that happens in the next two years will be about setting the stage for 2012,” said a leading Jewish activist who asked that his name not be used. “In terms of Middle East policy, the goal of the Republicans won’t be to change policy, but to set President Obama up by passing embarrassing resolutions and, when possible, forcing him to use his veto.”
For the Democrats, this observer said, the game will be primarily a defensive one — fending off GOP attacks around the edges of administration Middle East policy and protecting themselves in the next election cycle.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) fired the first salvo in that battle this week. In a JTA interview, he suggested separating Israel’s huge foreign aid allotment from the overall foreign aid budget — a perennial gambit that has been raised by Republicans and Democrats alike. Such a move would make it easier for Republicans to enact sweeping foreign aid cuts.
Talking about the growing reluctance of GOP lawmakers to vote for the annual Foreign Aid Appropriations bill, Cantor said, “Part of the dilemma is that Israel has been put in the overall foreign aid looping. I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel.”
Jewish Democrats say that’s little more than a risky pre-election maneuver that has little to do with Israel’s security.
Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign aid, termed Cantor’s proposal as “transparent as it is reckless. Manipulating aid to Israel in this way would dangerously threaten continued bipartisan agreement on national security policy and programs other than direct assistance to Israel that aid in its security.”
Some Jewish Republicans agree that a dramatic change in Congress could put Obama administration Middle East policy in the deep freeze.
“A GOP House would be quick to highlight its differences with the Obama administration on Israel, Iran, Syria and related concerns,” said Jason Epstein, an independent consultant and former legislative affairs director for B’nai B’rith International. “For example, you can bet the farm that any White House attempt to resume its full-court pressure on Netanyahu’s government would be vigorously challenged.”
At the same time, he said, “being in the minority would free up normally pro-Israel Democrats, who up until now have rarely challenged this administration in public, to join with the Republicans on regional issues.”
A shift to GOP control in the House would put some fierce pro-Israel hawks in key leadership positions. That includes Cantor, now the minority whip and the second-ranking Republican in the House, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is known for blizzards of resolutions and letters expressing support for Israel and disagreement with Democratic policies.
If the GOP takes the House, Ros-Lehtinen is the likeliest candidate to replace Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) as chair of the critical committee, and few doubt she will use it to harass an Obama administration that may continue to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
But the operative word here may be “harass.” Even some pro-Israel hawks say it is unlikely a resurgent GOP can do much more than put up speed bumps on the twisted highway to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, not erect roadblocks.
“I’m struck by the fact so many of my Israeli friends are exceptionally astute about the nature of Middle East policies and the peace process, but their command of American politics and government shows much less insight,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University.
That extends to expectations about how a GOP-dominated Congress will alter U.S. Middle East policy, he said.
“The Republicans will make very large gains in Congress, and that will stymie the Obama administration’s domestic policies,” he said. But foreign policy is “mostly the purview of the president. Other than matters involving the budget, appropriations and treaties, the president and his top advisers are not particularly affected by congressional action.”
On the Middle East, “I can’t see them adopting a more aggressive or critical policy toward Israel, or a more ambitious peace process, because they recognize that the chances of getting any significant progress are very poor,” Lieber said. “You just don’t have a partner for peace on the Palestinian side. In the absence of that, everything else is just Kabuki theater.”
But policy may be beside the point. The Republican focus on Middle East issues in their 2010 Jewish outreach may be meant mostly to set up Obama to take a bigger hit with Jewish voters when he runs for re-election in 2012.
“Having a Republican Congress next year won’t change Middle East policy a bit,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist who asked not to be named. “What it will do: give [Republicans] an opportunity to try to make the president look bad, or even to use his veto on Israel-related issues.”
That will almost certainly include renewed efforts to pass legislation eliminating the presidential waiver authority on 1995 legislation requiring the State Department to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — something the Republicans ignore when GOP presidents are in office but emphasize when Democrats control the White House (with the Democrats playing the same game when the partisan situation is reversed).
It will also likely include a veritable flood of “Dear Colleague” letters and nonbinding resolutions meant to send a message to the policy makers at the White House — and put Obama in an awkward position as he gears up his 2012 re-election campaign amid the shambles of what is almost certain to be a very bad election for the Democrats next week.
While some Israeli pundits argue a big GOP sweep will tie Obama’s hands when it comes to bold peace moves, former diplomat Lenny Ben-David said the realists in the Netanyahu government have a more sober view.
“The Netanyahu government understands the nature of the Washington power structure before and after the elections,” he said. “They may have tried 13 years ago to play the domestic opposition card … but today they know that a president, especially one who feels wounded or frustrated by Iraq and Afghanistan, could turn the pressure on Israel to prove his [toughness] or to earn his Nobel Prize. I don’t think there will be any gloating or celebration if and when the House and Senate go Republican.”