Netanyahu hangs hopes on US midterm elections

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mistakenly believes that a Republican US Congress would pressure President Barack Obama to change his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges applause as he arrives to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in Washington, March 4, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Theiler.

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us congress, palestine, israel, george w. bush, elections, benjamin netanyahu, barack obama

Oct 20, 2014

The Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah on Oct. 16-17 was an especially joyous one for the Republican group led by the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest supporters, likely rubbed their hands in glee at hearing US Secretary of State John Kerry’s address on Oct. 16, on the occasion of Eid al-Adha. The gift they got from the Obama administration went far beyond any expectations.

Kerry could not claim in his defense that the link he made between the Jewish state and the Islamic State (IS) was an “unfortunate slip of the tongue.” The argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “fuels” the recruitment of young people to the ranks of IS and stirs “agitation” on the Arab street was a recurring refrain in Kerry’s speech.

This time, Netanyahu chose, rightly so from his point of view, to practice restraint in light of Kerry's comments. After all, the words spoke for themselves. More to the point, they served his conservative political friends in the United States. Kerry provided the Republicans with new ammunition for the battle that will be waged on Nov. 4 against President Obama’s party. Netanyahu knows that even the Democratic Party’s most fervent supporters in the Jewish community find it hard to digest this bitter concoction mixing the Israeli occupation and that of IS.

As it is, polls indicate that in the coming two years Netanyahu will most probably be able to enjoy his favorite game: enlisting an energetic Republican US Congress to block any attempt by a Democratic administration to pressure Israel, and to impose a US policy suitable to the interests of the Israeli right. Generally, these interests are blatantly opposed to those of the United States in the Middle East.

Thus, for instance, as deputy foreign minister in the early 1990s, Netanyahu was among the leaders of the protest in the US Congress against the linkage made by Republican President George H.W. Bush between granting US loan guarantees for the absorption of immigrants in Israel from the former Soviet Union and a settlement freeze. Bush claimed that the settlements undermined the peace process and the US effort to strengthen the coalition that he had built in the First Gulf War.

James Baker, who served as secretary of state in the administration of George H.W. Bush, told me in a March 2010 interview: "Israeli leaders told us they would just get the money from the US Congress. Our reply was, 'We'll see you on Capitol Hill.’” That “encounter” on the Hill ended in victory for the administration and a crisis in Israel’s relations with the United States, which paved the way to power for late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his Labor Party.

Kerry’s speech reminded me of things said to me on that same occasion by Edward Djerejian, Baker’s assistant secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs and currently director of Baker Institute for Public Policy, Baker’s think tank. "The Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially the Palestinian issue, remains one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the entire Muslim world. Osama bin Laden exploits the plight of the Palestinians, as does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. … This has a direct influence on the United States, which is expending its blood and treasure fighting insurgencies in overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Kerry’s plea to Israel and the Palestinians to renew negotiations echoes Djerejian’s call to the Obama administration to bring the two sides back to direct talks.

Netanyahu did not learn the painful lesson of the loan guarantees affair. As head of the opposition in 1995, he enlisted the help of Congress for legislation mandating the move of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That move, too, hit a dead end; the three US presidents over the past two decades, among them Republican George W. Bush, signed wavers suspending the implementation of the law, citing damage to US interests. Netanyahu tried recently to promote a congressional initiative to impose harsher sanctions on Iran, in complete opposition to Obama’s position. This time even the heads of AIPAC, who estimated the move would fail, objected. And, indeed, Netanyahu lost this battle, too, and also angered the president.

One can assume that Netanyahu's entourage is hoping that a sweeping Republican victory in the elections to Congress will herald the party’s return to the White House, too. His associates would be well advised to remember that the 1982 US peace initiative, which proposed peace in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, bears the name of Republican President Ronald Reagan. He was also the one who decided to legitimize late PLO leader Yasser Arafat and open contacts with the PLO. The 2003 road map, which among other things requires Israel to completely freeze construction in the settlements, was born in the George W. Bush administration, also a Republican. At all these junctures, neither a Democratic nor a Republican Congress stood in the president’s way.

The image of an anti-Israel president with which Obama has been labeled, and the reckless attacks on Kerry, are highly unlikely to push away the US voter on Nov. 4. It is also highly unlikely that blind support for the policy of the current Israeli government will help Republicans with Jewish constituents, who are mostly loyal to the Democratic Party. As my colleague Shlomi Eldar wrote here, the young generation of American Jews is steadily distancing itself from Israel. A New York Times-CBS poll conducted in May 2012 indicated that only 4% of Americans consider foreign affairs as having any influence over presidential election campaigns. The upcoming congressional elections are also focused on domestic issues.

Presidents come and go, as do members of Congress, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains. Resolving it remains, first and foremost, an Israeli and Palestinian interest, but also an American one, irrespective of political party or style of rhetoric.

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