Analysis: Israelis, Palestinians eye US midterm elections

There is a foreboding sense in Israel that punishment is on the way — especially if Obama emerges from the midterms unscathed.

Obama Netanyahu at White House 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Obama Netanyahu at White House 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Israelis and Palestinians were closely watching next month's US midterm race amid a sense — rarely discussed openly but very much on people's minds — that the result could affect the US-led peace effort, and US President Barack Obama's ability to coax concessions from Israel.
Animating the discussion is the startling fact that the United States has failed, despite emphatic public appeals by Obama and weeks of increasingly frustrating diplomacy, to persuade Israel to extend the settlement-building slowdown that expired on September 26.
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That caused Palestinians to, in effect, suspend the US-brokered peace talks just weeks after they began.
The Palestinians are now hoping that Obama has reacted mildly to Israel's rejection because of political considerations ahead of the November 2 vote — and might be freer to apply pressure after the elections.
"We think that if President Obama emerges strong from this election, then this will enable him to work more on foreign policy," Palestinian Authority negotiator Nabil Sha'ath told The Associated Press. "If he and his party lose in the elections, then this will limit his ability to pressure and actively engage in foreign policy. This is the problem."
Although Israeli officials avoid discussing the topic publicly for fear of alienating its most important ally, there is a foreboding sense in Israel that punishment is on the way — especially if Obama emerges unscathed.
Nahum Barnea, a respected and widely-read columnist, put it this way in Friday's Yediot Ahronot: "The problem is the disgust and rage that the Israeli refusal sparked in the administration — a rage that is being suppressed at the moment, but which will erupt in full force on November 3, after the elections to Congress. The Americans are seeking the logic behind the refusal ... and are finding nothing."
But if recent polls are proved accurate and Republicans take one or both houses of Congress, a chastened president might be too busy or weakened to pressure Jerusalem much, the thinking goes.
If Congress tilts Republican it could have a "positive impact" on Israeli concerns, one adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told The AP — an allusion to avoiding pressure for concessions. With the Democrats weakened, Israel's friends in Congress — both Democrat and Republican — "would be able to have a stronger voice if the administration should embark on a policy that is less favorable to Israel," he added.
US foreign policy is set by the White House, not Congress. But Congress can influence it in the course of the day-to-day political horse trading that goes on between the executive and legislative branches.
For example, when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives during Netanyahu's first term in the late 1990s, the prime minister was able to marshal the support of the party's conservative wing in a face-off with then US President Bill Clinton over stepped-up settlement construction and Israeli troop pullbacks in the West Bank.
Traditionally, both branches have been bastions of support for Israel no matter which party is in charge. But conservative Republican legislators tend to be less critical of Israel's contentious settlement policy and more hawkish — and therefore supportive — on the security issues that are uppermost in Israel's mind.
The Israeli government has had, at best, uneasy relations with Obama himself.
Obama took office in early 2009 promising bold changes in American policy in the Middle East and in one of his first official acts appointed a Mideast peace envoy.
He soon traveled to Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, in a high-profile gesture to Muslims. The speech included a condemnation of Israeli settlements, winning over Palestinians while alarming the Israeli government.
Tensions peaked in March over Israel's approval of a major construction plan in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden. The move infuriated Biden, and Obama later publicly snubbed Netanyahu during a White House meeting. Although relations have mended, Mideast peace talks launched by Obama in early September are at an impasse over renewed settlement construction.
In the United States, foreign policy has barely registered on the radar screen in the run-up to the election. Blamed by many for the still-struggling economy and unemployment hovering around 10 percent, the Democrats find their majority at risk, especially in the House of Representatives, where all 435 seats are on the ballot.
Republicans could also make significant gains against the Democrat majority in the Senate, where 37 of 100 seats are up for grabs.
David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said a hypothetical Republican majority could be a "profound constraint" on Obama's ability to push Israel to make concessions for a peace deal. But he also said such thinking could backfire: "It's possible that the net effect of his losing the ability to pass domestic legislation might make him a 100 percent foreign policy president," said Makovsky, whose think tank has good relations with Israel.
Some in Israel have expressed concerns that Obama might put forward his own ideas for peace and try to impose a settlement if negotiations bog down.
Obama has set the ambitious goal of brokering a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by next September — hoping to do what a string of US presidents have failed to do in nearly two decades of stop-and-start peace efforts.
Obama will not "allow himself to be constrained by domestic politics if an opportunity avails itself," said Aaron David Miller, a senior former State Department official involved in negotiations. "He's not suicidal — but if there were an opportunity, he'd go for it."