For the most part, the United States government builds its strategies on national interests rather than on narrow party or personal politics. Nevertheless, the recent congressional elections inspired debate over possible effects on American Middle East policies, the peace process in particular. The reason for this is that in the eyes of some analysts and politicians, the current administration is leaning a little bit on Israel, especially on the issue of settlements. They believe that the new Republican-majority House of Representatives might restrain the administration.
Although the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed significantly between the previous Republican administration and the current Democratic one, the change is not necessarily influenced by the differing politics of the Democratic party. Indeed, the "lessons learned" from the shortcomings of the previous administration were put on the table well before the elections.
It might help here reminding ourselves of the findings of the Baker Hamilton Commission (also known as the Iraq Study Group), that was established by the previous administration. Its conclusions--that US engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a strategic national interest-have clearly been integrated into the approach of the current administration.
In other words, the US political establishment has carried out a process of self-criticism and recognized the need for change in a cross-party manner. One example is the need for active American and international Middle East diplomacy. The danger that ongoing deterioration of conditions in the Middle East poses to US interests and the inter-relation of the various conflicts of the Middle East are pushing the US administration to act and be involved where its predecessor was absent.
That doesn't mean that the fact that the Republicans have divided the Congress will not have an effect on Obama's Middle East policy, nor that there are no differences in the two parties in their understanding and approach to the region. The conclusion drawn here, however, is that the effect of this change is not going to be strategic or dramatic.
Barack Obama's approach to the conflict, characterized by intimate engagement and close diplomacy based on a deep conviction that this conflict has a negative impact on US Middle East interests, will continue in one way or another. Hopefully, the fact that significant progress has not been made will not deter the administration. Frankly, things could have been much worse had the administration refrained from extensive diplomacy and attention from the first week of Obama's presidency.
Another factor to be considered is the attitude of major US partners in Middle East peace efforts, particularly Europe, which has expressed growing urgency toward the Middle East, pushing the United States toward more engagement and clearer positions.
Finally, the dangerous radicalization in Israel-- evident in extreme right-wing political positions, aggressive practices vis-a-vis the occupied territories, settlement expansion, and publicly-stated racist tendencies--are encouraging the United States to remain closely involved. Ultimately, it seeks to control deterioration and encourage progress in negotiations and hopefully an agreement that will bring about an end to the occupation and, consequently, much-anticipated peace and security. - Published 8/11/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Change we can't foresee
by Yossi Alpher
The conventional wisdom in some circles now holds that Republican gains in last week's US congressional elections will weaken President Barack Obama's hand in trying to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This is not necessarily so, and for several reasons.
The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives was elected on a socio-economic ticket that has nothing to do with the Middle East. The more extremely conservative its members, Tea Party-affiliates and others, the less they know or care about the Israel-Arab conflict. Even American Jewish voters, two-thirds of whom stuck with the Democrats, ranked Israel-related issues eighth on their list of electoral priorities.
Then too, nowhere is it written in stone that Republicans don't care about peace in the Middle East. Two aging former secretaries of state in Republican administrations, Henry Kissinger and James Baker, can testify to that. Kissinger's efforts after the Yom Kippur War laid the groundwork for Israel-Egypt peace; Baker leveraged the first Gulf war into the Madrid process, which produced Oslo and Israel-Jordan peace. Both were by far more threatening and demanding of Israel than the Obama administration has dared to be.
We should also keep in mind that we are looking at scenarios for Republican influence on the peace process that could take months to emerge. Meanwhile, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to the US this week, the Obama administration appears to be picking up where it left off with the process on the eve of US elections as if nothing has happened.
That said, the House Republican majority is welcomed by the Israeli hard-line right wing for good reason. For one, Netanyahu is simply more comfortable with the Republicans: "I speak Republican," he nervously stated a year and a half ago, in explaining his need for Israeli diplomats in the US capable of filtering his policies and explaining them to Democrats. At a more general level, a Republican House and a stronger Republican minority in the Senate might benefit the anti-peace process right wing in Israel in several ways.
One would be to pressure the administration to reduce its demands on the Netanyahu government regarding concessions to the Palestinians--whether the current settlement-freeze controversy or negotiating issues to come. Another could be to weaken pressures on Netanyahu to block right-wing initiatives to constrain civil liberties and judicial independence in Israel and impose loyalty tests on Arab citizens of Israel and their elected representatives in the Knesset. The latter issue may not be directly related to the peace process, but it could profoundly affect the Netanyahu government's credibility in Arab and international eyes.
If the peace process fails and the PLO leadership makes good on its threat to seek confirmation of its statehood demands at the United Nations, a Republican-dominated Congress could conceivably retaliate by cutting America's critical contribution to the UN budget and severing American financial support for West Bank institution-building programs like the Palestinian security forces that have been so successful under the recently-departed General Keith Dayton--a program initiated, incidentally, under former president George W. Bush. Such moves could be disastrous. An active US and Israeli role in framing a UN decision to recognize a Palestinian state on terms acceptable to Israel is probably the best chance for peace today.
Republican pressure on the administration could also be felt in Middle East issue-areas that indirectly affect Israel-Arab peace. For example, Obama may now be exhorted to get tougher with Iran's nuclear program--a move Netanyahu would undoubtedly encourage, but with consequences for the region that are impossible to foresee. Congress could also get tougher with Turkey because of its initiatives to move closer to problematic states like Iran and Syria, thereby reducing openings for US-Turkish coordination in dealing with Israeli-Syrian talks and other peace process-related issues.
Beyond these speculations, it is important to bear in mind that opposition gains in a new president's first midterm elections are a fairly common phenomenon. Even if President Obama faces a Republican-dominated Congress, he remains in charge of US foreign policy and is ostensibly free to pursue Israel-Arab accommodation according to his vision. He certainly seems as determined as ever. Indeed, if the Republicans now frustrate Obama's domestic agenda, he may be moved to even greater activism in the foreign policy sphere.
This might mean that the combination of stalemated final status talks and an electoral setback to the administration could generate pressures within the administration to come up with a very different peace process in 2011. Special peace emissary George Mitchell might resign if his modus operandi is deemed to have failed. Things could change, though not necessarily the way Netanyahu hopes. Rather than having an easy ride with the Republicans in Washington and happily neglecting Israel's real interest in ending the occupation, Netanyahu might face growing tensions in the Israeli-American relationship.- Published 8/11/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Is Obama's loss Netanyahu's gain?
by George Giacaman
According to Israeli press reports, there was satisfaction and even rejoicing in Netanyahu quarters at the results of the elections for the House of Representatives. The assumption is that a majority of Republicans in the House will make it difficult for President Barack Obama to put pressure on the present Israeli government in the interest of a credible political process.
While this appears at first sight reasonable and even probable given traditionally strong Republican support for Israel, it is by no means a given. A great deal depends on how Obama decides which way to go in the coming two years, and whether it is possible for him to achieve any success that may shore up his political capital vis-a-vis Congress.
The results of the mid-term elections for the House can largely be explained by domestic and local factors, uppermost among which is the state of the economy. This is largely what brought into being the Tea Party, which oddly enough clamors for unfettered financial capital when this was the very reason why Americans were hard hit by the crisis in the first place. They are determined to deprive Obama of a second term and if the economy does not improve, they and the Republican party as a whole may well succeed.
The other option Obama has for possible achievement of some success is foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, where traditionally the president has more leeway and is less constrained by Congress. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bequeathed by the Bush administration have so far not shown themselves to be amenable to a quick solution, and a lot depends on what can be done during the coming year. But the prospects do not seem too auspicious.
Then there is Iran. One should expect that the Israeli government will have here an advantage as it can lobby Congress to be even more shrill on Iran in order to pressure Obama to take the military option. Still, another war in the region has severe consequences and is bound to backfire in more than one way, least of which oil prices reaching unprecedented levels.
This leaves the sagging "peace process" between Palestinians and Israelis. So far, the Obama administration has shown considerable weakness and in fact has been outmaneuvered by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Palestinian Authority was hoping that after mid-term elections Obama would change gears, and so did several other Arab countries. This presumably was based on the assumption that pressure on the Netanyahu government before the elections would turn the matter into an election issue to the detriment of Obama.
The question here revolves over whether Obama is willing and able to spend whatever political capital he has left to bring about a settlement to the conflict that can be declared a success and may possibly help in a re-election campaign. A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was declared by more than one official, including General David Petreaus, to be a national security issue. And on national security issues, the Congress has often balked at facing the president head-on. But even if Obama takes this option there may be limits to the kind of pressure he can bring to bear on any Israeli government given the influence of the Israel lobby, which now has more allies in Congress.
The worst-case scenario from the point of view of the Palestinian leadership is Israeli American agreement that "what is possible now" is another "interim" solution--Oslo 2 in effect. Such a prospect is already under discussion in Israel and the idea of a state with "temporary" borders was also raised under the Bush administration. Palestinians rejected this arrangement in the past, but it fears the possibility of intense pressure being exercised by the US and the international community, including possibly some Arab governments.
The dangers from a Palestinian point of view are obvious. A temporary arrangement will very likely turn into a permanent one if all major issues are left again to be "negotiated" in the manner of the Oslo process: Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and sovereignty. For after 19 years of negotiations, since the Madrid Conference in late 1991, the Palestinian leadership does not have the credibility or indeed the legitimacy to accept another round of years of negotiations. The Palestinian Authority has reached the end of the line.
Already there are public calls for the dissolution of the PA given the lack of clear prospects for an agreement. The idea was even recently raised by some PA officials. For it was never envisioned by Palestinians that the PA would function indefinitely as a large municipality to administer the affairs of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
A great deal then depends on the choices President Obama decides to make--and his choices will be crucially important not only for his presidency.-Published 8/11/2010 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman teaches at Birzeit University. His book "Before and After Arafat: Political Transformation During the Second Intifada" will be published in January, 2011.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Obama should learn from Clinton
by Akiva Eldar
The results of the American congressional election place President Barack Obama at a crossroads regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He confronts two options.
Under the first option, his painful electoral setback will oblige the president to devote the next two years to efforts to regain the support of millions of disappointed Democratic voters who stayed home on election day or punished him by supporting Republican candidates. Obama's Nobel Prize, awarded in part in recognition of his involvement in Israel-Arab peace efforts, did not console the millions of young American couples who have lost their homes or the hundreds of thousands of unemployed university graduates.
To restore their confidence, Obama will have to invest most of his political capital in domestic issues. To advance this agenda, he'll have to reach compromises with the Republicans, who in turn object to pressuring Israel and are more attuned to the conservative Jewish lobby.
Choosing this option is liable to mean, in the best case, turning the conflict over to the United Nations and thereby losing American control over the process. And in the worst case, it will mean expanded Iranian influence in the Middle East, increased violence and a decline in the status of pragmatic regimes in the region.
Under the second option, an aggressive Republican majority in the House of Representatives will tie Obama's hands and thwart administration attempts to move ahead with liberal reforms, lest Obama take credit for domestic successes that might enhance his reelection chances. By default, Obama will have to look for successes in the foreign affairs arena, and by default that search will bring him to the Middle East: the Israel-Arab conflict and the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The price Obama might pay for adopting this course is joining the list of American presidents who failed to bring about a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians, entering into confrontation with the government of Israel and losing support among Jewish organizations and contributors.
Obama is not the first Democratic president to contemplate such a dilemma in the middle of his first term and in the midst of efforts to advance a Middle East peace process. Nor is he the first president to confront a right-wing Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu. In the November 1994 congressional elections, the Republicans won both houses of Congress and threatened to exploit public anger at the administration, turn President Bill Clinton into a one-term president and recapture the White House.
Then, as now, advancing peace in the Middle East did not guarantee the president and his party significantly greater popularity. Yet Clinton persisted in his efforts to save the Oslo process. In the fall of 1995, just weeks before entering a presidential election year, he signed a waiver to freeze a law passed by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich that mandated moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A year later, on the very eve of elections and following rioting in the territories in response to the opening of the Hashmonean tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem, Clinton compelled Netanyahu to shake the hand of Yasser Arafat, agree to a ceasefire with the Palestinians and enhance security cooperation with them. The pressure the administration began then to apply to Netanyahu soon produced the Hebron agreement that required him to forego control over part of that city's ancient quarter.
Clinton's pressure on Netanyahu was understood and even supported by the mainstream Israeli public to a greater extent than is Obama's pressure for a temporary settlement construction freeze. The Clinton-Netanyahu crisis of confidence contributed to Ehud Barak's victory and the return of Labor to power in Israel in the 1999 elections. In contrast, Obama's cold shoulder to Netanyahu and the tension over the construction moratorium have negatively influenced Obama's popularity in Israel--not Netanyahu's.
There are two reasons for this phenomenon. First, Clinton succeeded in building a personal rapport with the Israeli street. He projected a warm message: that he cares about Israel. Obama, in contrast, projects distance and cool, and has found little place in Israelis' hearts.
Second, Netanyahu model 2010 is different from model 1999. The Bar Ilan speech in which he embraced the two-state solution and, in contrast, the refusal by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet with him, have portrayed Netanyahu as a more moderate figure both in Israel and abroad. His coalition partnership with the Labor party (which was not in his earlier government) adds another layer of pragmatism.
If Obama chooses the second option, he would be well advised to find his way into the hearts of Israelis and persuade them that he cares about them. Once he has reestablished Israeli confidence in the White House, he should abandon marginal tactics like the settlement freeze. Instead, he should present a bold American peace initiative that would enable the Israeli public to determine whether Netanyahu has indeed changed--or should be sent back to the opposition where Clinton put him 12 years ago.- Published 8/11/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Akiva Eldar is a columnist and editorial board member at Haaretz and was its US bureau chief. He is coauthor of "Lords of the Land" (2007), about the settlers.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.