In election defeat, Obama may now better understand PM

Analysis: Facing hard new choices himself, the US president could have more sympathy for Netanyahu's domestic political considerations.

311_obama yo mama (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
311_obama yo mama
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
SAN FRANCISCO – In the tidal wave of words that flooded the US airwaves after the Republicans took back the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s midterm elections, three words were conspicuously absent: “foreign policy” and “Israel.”
As the day wore on, dozens of analysts on Fox, CNN and NBC examined the results from every conceivable angle, dissecting what happened, and what message the Republican thumping of the Democrats sent to US President Barack Obama.
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Very few of the words were about the Middle East diplomatic process, Israel or the Palestinians.
US voters sent Obama a clear message Tuesday night, rejecting the president’s domestic program – his signature health care program, his economic stimulus package, his bailouts.
The message was for lower taxes and less government.
It had nothing to do, however, with foreign policy, Israel or the Palestinians.
There were those who over the last few weeks have said that once the elections were over, the US president would have a free hand for at least a year to come down hard on Israel. That until the 2012 presidential race began in earnest after Labor Day next September, Obama would not have to face the displeasure of Jewish donors to the Democratic party, or Jewish voters.
Others argued the exact opposite, saying that after the midterm elections, Obama would need to begin thinking seriously about re-election, and as a result would do nothing to further alienate Jewish support, such as pressuring Israel while stroking the Palestinians.
But the most likely scenario, as far as the president’s overall Middle East policy is concerned, is that Jerusalem – despite Tuesday’s results – will see more of the same from the Obama administration.
The US president has been very consistent in his perception of our conflict and how to resolve it. Over the last few months, there has been a tactical change in his tone toward Israel, but not an overall strategic shift in how he views the conflict or its solution. And that is unlikely to change now.
Obama’s commitment to remain heavily engaged in the diplomatic process, to work toward a two-state solution, and to publicly coming out against construction in the settlements, is unlikely to change as a result of the elections, or the resounding defeat his party received. He will not, justifiably, interpret the defeat as a vote on his Middle East policies.
But where there may be some change is in the president’s appreciation of the genuine political constraints that face Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, something that may affect Obama’s overall relationship with the prime minister.
Over the last few weeks, numerous stories have emerged from Washington saying there was a good deal of frustration and anger at Netanyahu inside the administration for using domestic political “excuses” as a reason for not responding positively to Obama’s call to extend the settlement moratorium. The moratorium expired on September 26; its extension would have kept the Palestinians at the negotiating table.
According to these reports, Obama and his Middle East advisers do appreciate that Netanyahu has coalition constraints, and that had he moved too far – or gone back on his promise and extended the settlement moratorium – he risked losing his coalition, and perhaps even his premiership.
However, the Obama team does not see this as a legitimate excuse. The president, according to these reports, believes the role of a leader is to lead, and Obama expected Netanyahu to do just that, even if the personal political price for the Israeli leader would be high indeed.
Tuesday’s results may give Obama a better understanding of Netanyahu’s dilemma, since Obama will now – as a result of the thunderous loss his party took in the elections – either have to take political reality into account and steer his domestic policies to the center, or face defeat in his widely expected run for re-election in 2012.
As one pundit said Tuesday night, Obama’s choice is now either to be a pragmatist – as Bill Clinton proved to be in 1994 when he suffered a mid-term election disaster and then quickly adjusted his polices and moved toward the center – or be an ideologue, and possibly burn himself up in the next election.
The starkness of the real political choices Obama himself will have to make after Tuesday may give him a better appreciation of the genuine political challenges Netanyahu is up against. And the administration may no longer view Netanyahu’s “domestic political considerations” as just a convenient “excuse,” designed to wiggle out of the need to negotiate.