WASHINGTON: No great expectations

Why American Interest in Israel's elections is at an all-time low.

By NATHAN GUTTMAN
March 23, 2006 19:21
4 minute read.
bush giving speech

bush 224.88 ap. (photo credit: AP)

Less than a week before the elections in Israel, the US seems to have all but forgotten about them. The American media hardly mentions the Israeli democratic process, and the issue is rarely raised in administration briefings. The election whose results are likely to lead to Israel making one of its most historic decisions - to determine its borders - is almost unnoticed in the capital of the free world. As far as the American media consumer is concerned, the Israeli elections have already been decided. The mainstream press has adopted the notion that Kadima will be the big winner on March 28, and that Ehud Olmert will be prime minister for the next four years. Apart from sporadic reports on the surprising strengthening of Avigdor Lieberman, and a short "Q & A" on the elections in the Washington Post, the press has decided to lay off the subject. The last time TV crews were dispatched to Israel was when Prime Minister Sharon was hospitalized after suffering a major stroke. Since then, Israel has been off the screen, literally and figuratively. Even the fact that Olmert is relatively unknown in the US has not generated media curiosity. But it is not only the American media which has reacted to the elections with a big yawn. The administration seems to have done the same. A former official who dealt with the Middle East said he cannot recall such lack of interest on the part of government officials and diplomats in the outcome of Israeli elections. This is worth noting not only because of the issues that are at stake in these elections, but also because of the dramatic change in the political landscape in Israel and the new figures that are taking the lead. ONE REASON for the lack of interest in Washington is the sense that these elections won't make much of a difference. The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections shut the door on any American-led Middle East peace initiative and buried any remaining road map route. Though the administration is well aware of the fact that during election season there is not much you can do with the Israelis who are busy spouting political rhetoric, this time there is not much to wait for when the season is over. The US expects the new Israeli government, once formed, to deal with the problems of humanitarian assistance and the withholding of tax money to the Palestinian Authority, but these are minor issues - ones the Americans understand no Israeli politician will be willing to confront until after next week. But that is about all that is expected from the next Israeli government. Olmert has made it clear that, if elected, he will move unilaterally to delineate Israel's borders. The US is expected to accept this plan, albeit unenthusiastically. US officials have stressed several times that their support for the disengagement from Gaza should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of unilateral Israeli steps. But since there does not seem to be any other option on the table right now, the second disengagement might turn out to be the only show in town. Another reason for American apathy may have to do with Israel's political leaders not making much of an attempt to bring either US public opinion or American Jewish donations into these elections. Though Olmert is known in administration and Jewish leadership circles, he is far from being a household name in America. And he chose not to come to Washington before the elections, in spite of an open invitation from the White House. Instead, he sent Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who managed to attract attention and praise after meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and having a "drop-in" visit by President Bush. While Kadima leaders were able to remain on the American radar - with Olmert, Livni and, of course, Shimon Peres being leaders who enjoy at least some name recognition - the other two party heads steered clear of the US arena. Amir Peretz, unknown to the American public and a riddle for the administration, made no attempt to interact with either the administration or with the Jewish community - other than giving a five-minute video speech at the recent AIPAC conference in Washington. Binyamin Netanyahu, who is as well-known a figure in the US as he is a controversial one, opted not to involve American public officials or US Jews in his campaign. THE AMERICAN Jewish community, too, has remained on the sidelines where Israel's elections are concerned. The absence of any real political debate in Israel has affected Jews overseas. In past elections, the noisy campaigns echoed on the other side of the Atlantic. This time the American Diaspora is neither involved nor actively supporting one party or another. According to a JTA report, campaign contributions from American Jews to Israeli parties are down this year, though there are no precise figures available. Among the reasons seen for this decline are the incapacitation of Sharon, which left American Jews without any Israeli leader whom they know and with whom they identify. Another reason has to do with the latest investigation into campaign financing in Israel, especially that of Omri Sharon, which caused donors to keep a safe distance from the Israeli political system. American Jews - as the public and policy-makers - will observe the outcome of Tuesday's elections with only minor interest. Though America was surprised once this year with the results of a Middle East election - that of the PA - in this case the victor seems to be a shoo-in. Provided that March 28 does not bring about any great surprises, Washington will go into the usual protocol of greeting new Israeli leaders - a courtesy phone call from the president and secretary of state on the morning after the elections, and an invitation to come to the White House. Sources in Washington are speculating that May will be a reasonable time for such a visit.


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