Israel Pulse

Israeli right fears new Congress

Article Summary
For the next two years, Israeli settlers and their right-wing supporters will no longer enjoy unlimited access to the House of Representatives.

On Nov. 9, 2016, right after the presidential elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to congratulate Republican victor Donald Trump and was one of the first world leaders to call him. On Nov. 7 of this year, right after the midterm congressional elections, Netanyahu forgot to congratulate Trump. Surely, the inveterate Twitter master from Jerusalem did not miss Trump’s crowing tweet (“Tremendous success tonight”). It would seem, however, that there is a limit to Netanyahu’s willingness to make himself a laughing stock, even for his White House benefactor.

And while Trump congratulated House Minority Leader and Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi on her party’s success, Netanyahu did not bother wishing her luck. The veteran lawmaker is not among the prime minister’s coterie of fans on Capitol Hill, and there seems to be a limit to the number of frogs Netanyahu is willing to swallow. He probably remembers that Pelosi was highly critical of his intention to address a joint session of Congress about the Iran nuclear deal in March 2015. Netanyahu has many opportunities to tell Americans what he thinks of the Iran agreement, Pelosi said prior to the speech, adding a veiled barb to the effect that the Israeli leader is a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows in the United States.

Other members of Netanyahu’s government from the Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi parties, chief among them Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who eagerly congratulated the Republicans on their 2016 victories, were mum this time around. Deputy Minister Michael Oren was the only politician from the ruling coalition who dared address the upset in the House of Representatives. “Following the midterm elections, the US administration will have to show foreign policy results, which means the president will spearhead his ‘ultimate deal’ with the Palestinians,” Oren tweeted. The US-born politician, appointed by Netanyahu as Israeli ambassador to the United States, a position he held for four years (2009-2013), believes that “of all the conflicts in the world, President Trump thinks our conflict in the Middle East is resolvable.”

This last sentence can be interpreted as an expression of hope or concern. The same goes for the Channel 10 television report on Nov. 10 regarding comments made last week by Trump’s peace process envoy Jason Greenblatt. Those who hope Trump will devote a concerted effort to pushing forward Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were encouraged when Greenblatt said, “We are sure that if both sides agree to enter negotiations, they will understand why we reached the conclusions that will be presented in the peace plan.” On the other hand, those whom Trump spoiled the way one does with children found cause for concern in the envoy’s remarks at a closed-door London event. “Neither side is going to like everything written in the peace plan, and they will have to compromise,” Greenblatt reportedly said. Topping the list is Netanyahu, who favors the word “might” (power) when speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for whom the term “compromise” is a synonym of weakness. And let us not forget that Trump said on Aug. 22 that after he had recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it was now time for the Palestinians to get “something very good.”

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Given the humanitarian crisis in the Hamas fiefdom in Gaza and the political woes of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, any peace plan would have to include generous economic aid for the Palestinians. Whenever Trump wanted to punish the Palestinians or spoil Israel, he found willing partners in Congress eager to slash US aid to the PA or to the UN Relief and Works Agency. The worriers in Jerusalem (Netanyahu) fear with good reason that if and when Trump presents a balanced and generous Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, he will be assured of Democratic support.

A Nov. 7 position paper by the Institute of National Security Studies recommends that Israel try to establish ties with the new Democrats elected to the House, including those considered among the most progressive in their party. The paper’s authors — former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and Eldad Shavit, formerly head of the research division in the Prime Minister’s Office — espouse links with the new lawmakers in order “to acquaint them more thoroughly with Israel’s interests.”

How do they propose convincing the newly elected progressive lawmakers that the Israeli blockade of Gaza serves the interests of the children in Israel’s Gaza border communities who are repeatedly forced to sleep in shelters? How do you convince representatives particularly sensitive to events in our region — such as the new Muslim representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — that Israel’s interest, not to mention the humanitarian aspect, requires the eviction of Muslim sheepherders from their home in the West Bank village of Khan al-Ahmar to make way for a Jewish settlement? It will be easier to convince the Israeli right that the Democrats are a bunch of leftists funded by J Street (some Democrat candidates received donations from J Street, a group that supports a two-state solution and objects to occupation policies).

Netanyahu and his associates are facing an additional challenge: how to persuade the Democrats, new and veteran, to help the Trump administration destroy every vestige of the Iran nuclear deal. The 2015 agreement bears the signature of former President Barack Obama and the backing of the 114th Congress, despite Netanyahu’s outspoken efforts to torpedo it. As Deputy Minister Oren hinted, Israel fears that an intensive search for foreign policy success will lead Trump to an insipid nuclear agreement with North Korea. The next logical step would be a new agreement with Iran, one that would deprive Netanyahu of his signature “Iranian threat” mantra.

After the sweeping Republican success in the 2016 elections, the Israeli right did not require the services of Congress to advance its interests with an administration of the opposite party. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and Israeli-born Dr. Miriam Adelson and her billionaire gambling tycoon husband Sheldon Adelson — mega-donors to the Republican Party — did the job for them. They burst through three wide-open doors at the White House, the House and the Senate. For the next two years, that last door will no longer swing open automatically. Sitting behind it will be people who do not prostrate themselves before the casino mogul in Las Vegas. It's no wonder Netanyahu did not remember to congratulate the winners of the elections to the 116th Congress.

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Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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