Reading The U.S. Elections In Jerusalem
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Reading The U.S. Elections In Jerusalem

Israelis on right and left watch the midterms from the sidelines, wondering how they might be affected.

Jerusalem — Shlomo Cohen is an affable guy and he’s happy to expound on just about anything, including the upcoming U.S. mid-term elections.

“I’ve been following the elections in Yediot,” Cohen said of Yediot Achronot, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Post, while taking a break from his job as a street-cleaner. “You want to know why?

“The reason is, I don’t like Arabs,” Cohen said, nursing a cigarette in the driver’s seat of a small, green brush-and-vacuum street-cleaning vehicle.

“We give the Arabs land and they send us Kassam [rockets], but if the Republicans win more seats in the American parliament, Obama won’t be able to exert so much pressure on Israel to stop building and give land to the Palestinians.”

Cohen’s street analysis is shared by many Israelis, who believe — regardless of their personal politics — that President Barack Obama will be somewhat hamstrung in pushing his agenda if the Congress becomes more conservative.

In truth, many of the Israelis approached for this article didn’t even know that elections are about to take place in the United States, but those who did felt a big win by the Republications will have ramifications for Israel.

Right-wingers, who believe Obama has been downright hostile to Israel, are naturally rooting for the Republicans, while left-wingers are hoping against hope that the Democrats will continue to control the Congress.

Josh Hasten, for one, is looking forward to the election.

A public-relations professional and a former spokesman for the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements, he said he is “hopeful” that Republicans will take control of the Congress, and possibly the Senate.

“I’m hopeful they’ll hinder President Obama’s anti-Israel policies. Obama’s goal of forcing Israel to make concessions will only lead to further violence and Israeli deaths. Pressuring Israel won’t bring peace any closer,” Hasten said.

Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, which opposes settlement activity, hopes the American people will provide Obama with a Democratic safety net for the remainder of his term.

“Without getting into American politics, most people in the peace camp would like to see the Democrats retain power to allow Obama to work toward peace in the region,” Oppenheimer said.

Yet at the same time, Oppenheimer said, “there’s another theory that says if the Republicans get a majority, the outcome could be positive for the peace camp because the president could have more success handling foreign affairs than affairs back home. That was certainly the case for President Clinton, who put a lot of energy into the Middle East peace process.”

The latter scenario isn’t far-fetched, said Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University.

“In 1998 Clinton managed to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu into signing the Wye agreement, despite the fact that both houses were under Republican control,” Rynhold noted.

Either way, Rynhold said, the American president is going to forge ahead with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because it is central to his foreign policy agenda.

“His whole policy is built around getting negotiations started. It would be a failure” if they don’t progress, the political scientist said.

There are those, as well, who believe that, for better or for worse, the election’s outcome will not dramatically affect Obama’s strategies toward peace. Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a coexistence organization, is one of them.

“I’m not sure the elections will have that big an impact on the peace process,” Baskin said. “Actually, I would expect the same level of commitment and, unfortunately, the same level of achievement we’ve seen for the past year and a half.”

Baskin said that Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special Mideast envoy George Mitchell had “allowed themselves to fall into a trap” that’s enabled Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to get mired in “issues of procedure but not substance.”

If it were up to Baskin, the American administration would set the rules of negotiation “and then put issues on the table.” When gaps between the two sides appear, “you put bridging ideas on the table. That way, they’ll negotiate over the substance, not the negotiations themselves.”

David Ricci, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University, also believes the election’s fallout could be less than many anticipate.

“The question is whether foreign policy is made in the Congress, but the Congress may have very little to do with it. It authorizes foreign aid and can OK military aid, but the actual day-to-day negotiations are conducted by the White House and the State Department,” Ricci emphasized.

That being said, a big Republican victory could leave the impression that the president’s clout has been weakened, even if it hasn’t.

“Everyone around the world will say the president is weaker, and when he offers the Palestinians and Israelis things as an incentive to reach a peace agreement, they may doubt his ability to deliver.”

Israelis, Ricci said, have less to worry about because “the Republicans will be willing to give Israel whatever Obama proposes.” But the Republicans “are less friendly to the Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs. Then Netanyahu could use this situation to extract even more from the administration, and the Palestinians would be even more reluctant to make a deal.”

“Leah,” an eighth-generation Jerusalemite, said she can’t find comfort in any of these scenarios.

Buying geraniums in a flower shop, Leah, 57, recalled: “I was a soldier during the Yom Kippur War, the most devastating war imaginable and those experiences remain with me till this day.

“We didn’t have enough weapons, and I remember how we waited, waited, waited for the Americans and Henry Kissinger to help us survive. We sent emissary after emissary, but nothing helped.

“America wasn’t totally there for us back then, and I have my doubts Barack Obama would be there for us now, in a catastrophe,” Leah said.

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