Republican victory: More Israel support, or isolationism?

Analysis: Anticipated shake-up of US political landscape won’t necessarily have major reverberations on the US-Israel relationship, peace talks.

WASHINGTON – The negotiations between Israelis and Palestinian have entered a holding pattern while the sides wait for next Tuesday’s elections that are almost certain to give Republicans control of the US House of Representatives and possibly the Senate.
But the anticipated shake-up of the American political landscape won’t necessarily have major reverberations on the US-Israel relationship and American-brokered peace talks.
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The White House is expected to give more attention to reinvigorating the stalled process after Election Day, but not to shift tactics.
“The expectation is that it will be back to business again, trying to get these talks moving and trying to get the two sides to sit down to business,” said one Israeli official, speaking as the sides remained deadlocked. Israel refuses to renew its freeze on construction in the settlements and the Palestinians continue to make the freeze a condition for negotiating.
Though some observers have suggested a vocal Republican congressional majority – regarded as strongly supportive of Israel and willing to oppose signs of pressure on Jerusalem – could put the brakes on Obama’s efforts, an Israeli official disagreed.
“It would be a mistake for any policy maker in Israel to think, come November 3, that because it’s a Republican Congress we’re going to have an easier or better time than we’ve had before. It won’t make a difference,” he said. “Foreign policy is dictated by the White House, and Congress and the administration are going to be preoccupied with dealing with the economic situation.”
At the same time, he said he has seen no sign that the White House would do anything more than continue its intensive efforts to get the talks back on track, despite speculation that US President Barack Obama might come down harder on Israel to compromise on settlements after the focus on midterm elections – and its domestic politics – are behind him.
The Israeli official gave late winter as the earliest time-frame for America to come forward with its own bridging proposals, in a scenario in which negotiations resumed in the near future.
That would be soon after Republicans take the reins of Congress in January, if the elections go their way. In the House, where the GOP is most likely to take control, several key Israel allies would be in line to assume key positions, though they’d generally be replacing Democrats who are themselves strongly pro-Israel.
Eric Cantor of Virginia, currently minority whip, would be almost certain to become majority leader in place of Maryland’s Steny Hoyer. That would make Cantor the highest- ranking Jewish Republican in House history.
Howard Berman, a Jew from California, would lose the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, but the latter is considered staunchly supportive of Israel.
“I think you’ll see slightly more friendly [congressional] leadership, but usually both parties are quite friendly toward Israel,” said Tevi Troy, a Jewish liaison in the George W. Bush White House, of a potential Republican shift.
But he suggested that a Republican Congress could still complicate Israel’s position, hypothesizing that if Obama finds his domestic agenda “stymied” by the GOP, he could intensify his foreign policy efforts.
“You might have a situation where Congress is more friendly to Israel but it ends up with Israel being pressed more as a result, although indirect,” Troy said.
Other Israel supporters are worried that a Republican Party increasingly conservative and influenced by Tea Party candidates who prioritize budget-cutting could hurt US aid to Israel.
Cantor, responding to a question about the growing Republican tendency to vote against foreign aid, told JTA that he would seek to put Israel aid in a category separate from the general foreign aid budget.
“Part of the dilemma is that Israel has been put in the overall foreign aid looping,” he said. “I’m hoping we can see some kind of separation in terms of tax dollars going to Israel.”
But that kind of change could set Israel on a dangerous course, warned National Jewish Democratic Council President David Harris.
“It’s a strategy the organized pro- Israel community has opposed,” Harris said of similar suggestions to change the source of Israel aid allocations in the past. “Politically, it’s not the wisest move to separate Israel from every other country in the world and from every other constituency in the country.”
He argued that a Republican vote against foreign aid would be a sign of a policy of isolation, which also bodes ill for Israel.
Still, Harris acknowledged that even if Democrats retain the House, it would be by a very slim margin that would complicate legislative efforts.
The Israeli official said that either way support for the Jewish state would be widespread.
“We might have a strong Congress, slightly more vocal in support of Israel,” he said of a Republican victory, but he pointed to a recent letter supporting Israel in its peace efforts signed by 87 senators.
“We’re in pretty good shape regardless of whether Republicans take over the House or not,” he said.