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Those anticipating Clinton-like Middle East initiatives in the last two years of the Bush administration may be very disappointed.
The American political landscape is due for a shake up next month, with Democrats making strong gains in Congress. Many predict the House of Representatives will turn Democratic, and there is a chance that the Senate could turn over as well. But those in the halls of Congress say very little will change for US relations in the Middle East.
"What you'll probably see is not a change in policy, but in tactics," said one congressional aide this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. While Republican congressional leaders sought to show their support for Israel via frequent congressional resolutions - largely in a bid to strengthen its ties with the American Jewish vote - Democrats are likely to be less dramatic.
But, analysts said, the Democratic lawmakers poised to take over the leadership are solidly in support of the Jewish state.
While the new names and faces in Congress are not likely to change the majority support Israel regularly receives on Capitol Hill, the potential does exist for US policy toward Israel to fluctuate because of the election results, as the Bush administration turns its attention to other Middle East hotspots, namely Iraq and Iran. Growing support for Democrats this year stems largely from increased frustration with the war in Iraq, and the incoming congressional leadership is expected to seek changes on the ground, as well as new ideas for dealing with the growing Iranian threat. Faced with congressional pressure, and the prospect that dwindling American support could mean a Democratic White House in 2009, the Bush administration may rethink its broader Middle East vision.
Some analysts expect the White House to seek stronger engagement from moderate Arab countries. And Arab countries are likely to push the administration to reengage on the Israeli-Palestinian path. "It flows through the region," one Middle East analyst said. "People may not want to draw the direct line, but the idea is you may have to have a more comprehensive policy."
IT'S A scenario we've seen before. In the weeks and months before the Iraq war was launched, Arab states pushed Bush to become more active in the conflict, leading to his famous June 24, 2002 speech, seeking new Palestinian leadership to rise as alternatives to Yasser Arafat. This time around, the Bush administration may become more engaged with the Palestinians, including increased funding and political support to strengthen Fatah against Hamas.
But that is not a universally accepted scenario. Many in Washington believe very little will happen in the next two years, as the presidential campaign cycle launches almost as soon as this next election ends. Bush has been a strong opponent of Clinton's full throttle attempt for Middle East peace in his waning days in office, and is unlikely to try and replicate it. And Democrats say consistently that Bush has been unwilling to actively engage in the region, or put forth a permanent envoy to do his bidding.
Nor is it expected to be top on congressional Democrats' agenda. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader who would become speaker of the House, is a strong pro-Israel supporter, as are others in line for leadership jobs. And while their vision of the Middle East may shift from their Republican counterparts - namely former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who spoke against Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip - they may not be inclined to say so.
"Nancy Pelosi is at some level in her heart a two-state pro-peace person, more so than Republican leadership," the congressional aide said. "But she has been hamstrung away from these leanings by a perception that she believes, or has been told that for political reasons, she should be the status quo leader."
Israel is not on her inaugural agenda, aides said.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, is in line to become chairman of the House International Relations Committee if the Democrats win. But some rumblings suggest other lawmakers - namely Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) - may bypass him because of Lantos' support for the Iraq war. Privately, congressional aides say Lantos has been reassured by Pelosi that he will get the chairmanship; both men are considered strong backers of the Jewish state.
The more intriguing scenario rests on the Appropriations Committee. Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) is in line to chair it. He has been an occasional critic of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and their influence over Middle East policy. But at the same time, pro-Israel advocates say he has been more than willing to cede issues to his subcommittee leaders, and the new foreign operations subcommittee chair would be Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a strong, proactive Israel backer.
While Democrats are quietly planning their strategy for House leadership, a lot remains to be determined in the Senate. Tight races in several states means it is unclear which party will be in the leadership next year. Certainly, policy issues across the board will look a lot different if both chambers of Congress are controlled by Democrats.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been largely silent on the Middle East in recent years. That could very well change if Democrats are in charge. Even if Republicans remain in control, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), chairman of the Middle East subcommittee, is in a tight race to keep his seat, so changes may come nonetheless.
What remains to be seen is how much Democrats utilize opportunities to showcase their support for the Jewish state. Republican initiatives in Congress over the last few years have helped the party be seen as viable alternatives for Jewish voters, and is considered to be responsible for at least modest improvements in support for Republican candidates. Democrats have been looking to counter that movement, and taking pages from their playbook on Israel could be a lot easier if they control one or both houses of Congress, analysts said.
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