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.