The midterms: an Israeli perspective (UPDATED)

Posted: November 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments »

Obama lost, Israel won, declares a headline on Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site

The original post was updated.

President Barack Obama is not popular in Israel, to say the least. Israelis knew John McCain as their supporters; Obama was a mystery. Early in 2009, the new president’s attempts to approach the Arab world defined him as a pro-Palestinian, at least in the eyes of many Israelis. Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) expressed the common view in the government when she declared that “we fell into the hands of a horrible administration” (other politicians were blunter, simply calling Obama “a new Pharaoh“). Rightwing comments on the internet often refers to him just as “Hussein”.

First impressions are very hard to change, and recent efforts by the administration to improve the president’s image with the Israeli public and were unsuccessful (at the same time, they destroyed the administration’s credibility with the Palestinian public). Even today, the relations between Jerusalem and the White House are often framed by the media with confrontational terms, emphasizing the lack of trust between the two sides and overplaying misunderstandings and arguments. When Washington tried to show a more welcoming face to Jerusalem – as it did during Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington – its actions were portrayed as a staged effort, designed for internal purposes. Altogether, it seems that the White House was probably better off sticking to its original line.

Under these conditions, the Democratic defeat in the midterm election pleased many Israelis. An op-ed on Ynet on the eve of the elections declared Netanyahu as “the leading candidate for Congress,” while Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent, Aluf Benn, even speculated that Netanyahu did not extend the moratorium on settlements construction in order to help “his GOP friends” on the hill.

It’s clear that nobody in the PM office would shed tears over the blow the Democrats suffered in the midterm elections. Having said that, I guess Netanyahu is smart enough to know that a conservative House can’t prevent a determined Democratic president from trying to push the diplomatic process forward. As many pundits estimate, the administration might even become more active on foreign policy, as the new balance of power in Washington would make it hard to peruse domestic reforms.

For Israelis, the elections are interesting for what they tell about the president’s image and support – they got more media coverage than midterms usually get – but their political implications are far from being clear. I believe that the power struggle between Dennis Ross and George Mitchell in the White House – in which Ross seems to have the upper hand – would turn up to be much more important than the landslide victory the GOP won today. Those Israeli officials that enjoyed seeing president Obama humiliated probably know that too.

One final thought from an Israeli perspective: many people have noticed that Israel is heading towards becoming a partisan issue in Washington. The Obama-Netanyahu confrontation is speeding up this process, but it’s not the whole story. It seems that the liberal camp in the US is distancing itself form Israel, Much in the way the European Left has done in the past. Questions on the pros and cons of the “special relations” that were once raised only in back rooms are now openly discussed by the US media. The moral appeal of Israel seems to be weakening, at least in the eyes of Democrats.

The midterms could speed up this process, especially if the Republicans adopt Israel as a an vessel for attacks on the White House, and a generational change occur in the Democratic party, bringing a new set of candidates that would distance themselves from Jerusalem and AIPAC. The current success of the “pro-Israeli” camp in Washington might turn to be a double-edged sword.

UPDATE: the Israeli newspapers were going down to print as the first exit polls were published in the US, so the size of the democratic defeat wasn’t known to the reporters and the papers’ tones remained somewhat reserved. Only Yisrael Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu free tabloid, didn’t hesitate to frame the elections as a blow to the president. The paper’s analysis article, written by Prof. Avraham Ben-Zvi, predicted that from now on, the president won’t be able to pursue an ambitious foreign policy and would focus on co-operating with the Republicans on the home front. The White House’s Middle East policy, wrote Prof. Ben Zvi, would be limited to crisis solving.

On Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site, an op-ed by Yoram Etinger declares that “Obama lost, Israel won“. Etinger calls for the Israeli government to increase its effort to win support on the Hill, claiming that the pro-Israeli congress can counter-weight the White House and the State Department’s policy.

Maariv’s Shmuel Rosner, former Haaretz correspondent in Washington and one of the better writers on American politics in Israel, doesn’t rush to conclusions, stating that the future of the American Middle East policy is still unclear:

“The Israeli reader should understand: America didn’t vote against Obama because the way he treated Netanyahu’s government, nor because of his Middle East policy, Iraq or Afghanistan. These elections were determined on one reason only: the economy… [The elections' results] might hurt the administration’s ability to apply pressure on Israel. On the other hand, a Republican control over the House would prevent Obama from gaining major achievements that involves legislation. What are we left with? Foreign policy.

Where will Jerusalem and Washington go from here? Netanayhu wasn’t ready make significant decisions in the peace process when Obama was at the height of his powers, and my guess is that after the midterms, feeling he has more leverage over the White House, his positions will be even tougher. Right now, I think Netanyahu is more concerned about the future of his coalition than over relations with America. If Labor quits his government – a move that seems more likely recently – his slide towards new elections will begin. From this fate, even Eric Cantor couldn’t save the Israeli PM.

15 Comments on “The midterms: an Israeli perspective (UPDATED)”

  1. 1 Y. said at 11:33 pm on November 2nd, 2010:

    “Early in 2009, the new president’s attempts to approach the Arab world defined him as a pro-Palestinian, at least in the eyes of many Israelis.”

    There was a lot more to do with this. We can start with the settlement moratorium demand, or Obama’s Cairo speech (which presented the Holocaust as the sole justification for the Jewish state – just like the refined version of Ahmadinejad’s narrative. I do recall the draft was much better), its unnecessary confrontationalism towards Nethanyahu (as James Baker might tell you, there are ways to pressure Israel without trying to humiliate its PM), and so on and on.

    “First impressions are very hard to change, and recent efforts by the administration to improve the president’s image with the Israeli public and were unsuccessful (at the same time, they destroyed the administration’s credibility with the Palestinian public).”

    I don’t think he ever had credibility with the Palestinian public. IIRC, Pew polls have Obama get the same low number as Bush – around 20-something support, a single point above Bush.

    “When Washington tried to show a more welcoming face to Jerusalem – as it did during Netanyahu’s last visit to Jerusalem”


    “An op-ed on Ynet on the eve of the elections declared Netanyahu as “the leading candidate for Congress,” ”

    That op-ed was written by one of Ross’s former Israeli advisors and ended with the sentence: “Netanyahu may have won in the short term, but missed a rare opportunity for peace, which is the true victory”. Hardly an endorsement.

    Interestingly, it had the opposite analysis – arguing that Obama will have to concentrate on domestic issues in order to get reelected and therefor will lay off Nethanyahu. I wonder if that op-ed represents Ross’s opinion (probably not, and in any event I’m sure he’ll deny it).

    “It seems that the liberal camp in the US is distancing itself form Israel, Much in the way the European Left has done in the past. Questions on the pros and cons of the “special relations” that were once raised only in back rooms are now openly discussed by the US media. The moral appeal of Israel seems to be weakening, at least in the eyes of Democrats.”

    But unlike the European Left, Jews form a major part of the American Left. Therefor, I think the important arena right now is the Jewish internal wrangling (J street and co. seem to be losing for now).

  2. 2 noam said at 1:58 pm on November 3rd, 2010:

    A. at the same time one can count the increased military support, and Obama’s willingness to confront Iran – something Bush decided not to do, but never paid a political price for.

    B. I think he was polling better in the Arab world on 2009, but I don’t have the figures. he certainly did better than Bush.

    C. Jerusalem – corrected.

    D. regarding Israeli pundits: see updates.

    E. the Liberals are not the European Left, but there is a major change in the way Israeli is viewed by the American Left. I tended to downplay it as well, but I’m more and more convinced. Even the Jewish community has an open debate on Israel now – something that was unthinkable five years ago.

  3. 3 Y. said at 6:51 pm on November 3rd, 2010:

    A. The aid is slightly increased (from 2.4 Bil of American weapons to the previous 3 Bil value), but how many people even know that? Anyhow, modern Israel could use diplomatic support from the US much more than it could use military support, and the former has been reduced.

    Secondly, let’s remember the press (Israeli or American) never framed Obama’s actions as “willingness to confront Iran”. There was always a focus on his attempts to negotiate and his repeated deadlines to Iran. Nor do I recall Obama stating he’ll consider the military option if talks and sanctions fail.

    Now, to diverge a second, people forget that the extremely strict sanctions placed on Iraq in the nineties arguably caused the deaths of some hundred thousands of people[1]. And even then it took some years and UN inspections to destroy his program, and many people did not know it was destroyed. So we have the following options re Iran:
    1. War.
    2. The moral equivalent of war. And it’s quite possible the regime will simply launch a war in this case.
    3. Letting Iran get nukes, followed by containment.

    Hardly a pleasant choice – I don’t envy the policymakers. The recent sanctions are anodyne and are unlikely to lead to anything given the advanced stage of the Iranian programme, so they appear to be a prelude to containment (at best) rather than an attempt to stop Iran.

    E. Well, the part of the Jews is exceptional in this “debate”. Judt, Finkelstein, Beinart’s essay… As for influential gentile opponents, I can only think of prof. Walt and his partner and that’s very limited. (Maybe Sullivan too?)

    So if anything, I’d say significant opposition to Israel or Israeli policies in the Jewish community exists much more than any significant opposition outside it and had in fact predated it, with the exception of the uni. subculture which had hard-left influences and was therefor always much more hostile to Israel.

    This isn’t a new observation – Walter Russel Mead had the same idea – but unlike him I don’t think that Jews are insignificant in forming general American perceptions of Israel. Rather that any wider drop in Liberal circles would require more influential Jews change their minds first.

    [1] – Yea, I know it’s wiki and therefor of zero reliability re history, but it’s a decent if biased bibliography.

  4. 4 Shaun said at 7:00 pm on November 3rd, 2010:


    I am curious when you say that Dennis Ross has the upper hand over Mitchell. What makes you say that?

    I see the approaches between them is that Ross is way too senstive to Israeli demands, and takes into account considerations, which I don’t think the US should consider seriously such as Israel’s coaliation problems. After the debacle in Camp David in 2000, Ross should be kept way out of any serious negotiations, other than for cosmetic purposes – to give the impression that a ‘pro-Israel’ advisor is in the White House.

  5. 5 noam said at 12:25 pm on November 4th, 2010:


    A: that’s my point exactly. Obama engaged the Iranian problem, while Bush simply ignored it, estimating (correctly) that it won’t blow up on his term. yet Obama doesn’t’ receive credit for it.

    Regarding attack: the administration always said that “all options are on the table”. yet I believe that if Iran won’t provoke anyone, an attack is very unlikely – even if Obama loses in 2012.

    E. I disagree. I think that there is significant opposition for the “special relations” view both on the none Jewish Liberal camp and within the “realist” camp (Pentagon, State Department). at the same time, Israel is getting stronger on the hill, with the neo-cons and of coarse, the evangelistics.

    Looking back, I think that like many people on the left, I expected a faster shift in American Middle East policy under Obama. I advise people on the right not to make the same mistake now, after these elections. American politics are different than Israel’s. changes are smaller, and slower. I believe the US will continue to push for a settlement, mainly because people recognize it as an American interest.

  6. 6 noam said at 12:30 pm on November 4th, 2010:


    First indication: Ross started as the Iran guy in the administration, and suddenly he is deeply involved in the Israel/Pal affair. the fact that the administration became more “pro-Israeli” around the same time shows that he is not just doing “cosmetics”.

    Second: there are talks that Mitchell is on his way out, to be replaced by Indik. Even if he ends up staying, he seems weaker.

  7. 7 maayan said at 3:16 pm on November 4th, 2010:

    Indyk has turned against Israel in recent years. It will be as big a mistake for the American administration to appoint him to lead the talks as it was to have that Obama speech in Cairo.

  8. 8 Tom Mitchell said at 5:06 pm on November 4th, 2010:

    Exactly what evidence is there that Mitchell is anti-Israel? Is this because he was raised by Maronite Christian Lebanese by any chance?

    When Mitchell started his role as mediator in Northern Ireland, conservative unionists from the DUP and UKUP parties tried to prevent Mitchell’s appointment on the grounds that he was biased towards nationalists (Catholics). This turned out to be complete nonsense. I think that Mitchell may end up leaving his position soon because he sees no realistic prospects of progress in the peace process and wants to retire to enjoy life with his wife and young son.

  9. 9 Tom Mitchell said at 5:09 pm on November 4th, 2010:

    Sorry, I guess you said that Indyk was not supportive of Israel recently. What evidence is there for this? Or do you equate being pro-Israel with being pro-Likud?

  10. 10 Harlan said at 7:59 pm on November 4th, 2010:

    I agree with Steve Walt that the midterm elections were not about foreign policy and are very unlikely to effect foreign policy. See for the details

    Under the U.S. constitutional system the President has exclusive authority to recognize other states and sovereignty over territory. If Obama really is pro-Palestinian, then the Congress cannot prevent him from recognizing a Palestinian state based upon the 1967 boundaries in any event. Abbas is likely to ask Obama to do that (or stand aside in the Security Council) in the very near future.

  11. 11 Y. said at 9:38 pm on November 4th, 2010:

    A. Yea, I too don’t expect an attack on Iran anytime. I’m saying that I don’t see why Israel should give Obama any credit for his actions so far given its a dead end approach, regardless of what Bush did or did not do (and I do note that Bush had the impediment of the 2007 NIE). Of course, none of this removes the other reasons Israel dislikes Obama.

    E. I was talking about the alleged distancing from Israel in American Liberal public opinion, not about all people opposing the “special relationship”. I’m aware of the so-called Realist side (I did mention Walt), but most have had very limited influence on Liberal public opinion so far, far less than the Jews opposing Israel.

    Your advice is of course accurate – changes in US policy would be much smaller than some expect. If anything, perhaps the biggest change would be that Obama gives higher priority to other issues for a while, but not an actual change of policy.

  12. 12 Y. said at 9:53 pm on November 4th, 2010:

    Tom: You seem to be trying to get insulted. Less huff and puff would be more helpful to discussion, don’t ya think?

    Now, to give one example, Indyk “evolved” from explicitly rejecting linkage in his book to endorsing it. That said, I am not sure it’s really a personal change of opinion, but possibly just being loyal to the President.

  13. 13 maayan said at 5:53 am on November 5th, 2010:

    First of all, Tom, read this:

    Second, I’ve seen Indyk speak recently and found his attacks on Israel and constant praise of Abbas to be ludicrous. He was in complete denial or simply lying about what the Palestinian leadership is trying to do.

    He also claimed last year that Tzipi Livni undermined Olmert’s peace offer to Abbas by telling Abbas not to agree to it. Later that day, when Livni’s office denied the accusation, Indyk admitted that it wasn’t first-hand information and went back on it.

    I doubt anybody in Israel’s leadership would trust him now and if you’re going to have a broker between the two sides, he has to be trusted as neutral by both sides. Mitchell has done this capably but unsuccessfully. Any replacement will have to find a way to be perceived as neutral.

  14. 14 Tom Mitchell said at 2:41 pm on November 6th, 2010:

    The truth is that neither Israelis nor Arabs want a neutral mediator but, rather, both want one that favors their side. Israel wants and expects this because it has been the historical experience with the exception of Jimmy Carter. And the Palestinians are simply used to complaining about American bias, while usually doing things that help to ensure the continuation of that bias.

  15. 15 Tom Mitchell said at 2:45 pm on November 6th, 2010:


    I’ll stop huffing and puffing when you do. Example: at Cairo Obama didn’t claim that the Holocaust was the sole justification for the existence of Israel, it was the only one he mentioned. If you don’t understand the difference between the two you should consult a basic text in logic.