Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

US Middle East policy after the mid-term elections

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Update from AIJAC

November 11, 2010
Number 11/10 #02

As readers will be aware, US mid-term elections last week saw major gains for the Republican party at the expense of US President Barack Obama's Democrats. While the election primarily focussed on domestic political issues, this Update will focus on analysis discussing the effects, if any, of the changed Washington political scene on US Middle East policy.

First up is the reliably insightful and interesting Barry Rubin, who says any difference will probably be the result of the way President Obama himself reacts, given that Congress has very limited say in foreign policy in Washington. He frames the question as "Is Obama a pragmatic politician or an ideologue?" and leans toward the former view. He argues that Obama's Middle East policy has managed to avoid major crises over the short-term but is effectively building up more serious problems for later, and if he is pragmatic, he will need to be convinced to change course, and speculates on who in the Administration could convince him of the need to do so. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE. More good general analysis of possible impacts of the election on US Middle East Policy comes from veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler, Israeli academics Mark Heller and Eran Oded, Newsweek, and Radio Free Europe.

Next up is Haaretz's Ari Shavit, who argues that on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Obama is likely to actually re-double his efforts in the face of the likely stalemate on his domestic agenda. Shavit is not opposed to this, but he says trying to impose a solution on the parties would be a major mistake, leading to future chaos. Instead, he urges Obama to change tack to pursue an interim agreement that would allow major progress toward Palestinian independence without endangering Israel. For Shavit's complete discussion, CLICK HERE. A variety of other Israeli views of what Obama could and should do next are here, here and here.

Finally, Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post looks at how the election may affect the Obama Administration's relationship with Israel's Netanyahu Government. He agrees that the election, not fought on foreign policy, is unlikely to affect Obama's overall focus on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, but predicts some more marginal effects on his approach. In particular, he makes the case that Obama, now faced with his own domestic limits on his power, may come to better appreciate Netanyahu's argument that his domestic political coalition will not allow him to take steps that Obama has urged. For all that Keinon has to say, CLICK HERE.

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The Election and the Middle East:

How Many Barack Obamas Do You Need to Change a Light Bulb?

 
By Barry Rubin


Rubin Report, Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What effect will the Congressional elections have on U.S. foreign policy generally and Middle East policy in particular?

It isn't a matter of individuals, since nobody lost or won who will have some big influence on U.S. policy in the next couple of years. The important factor is to what extent the White House hears the message being delivered with the electorate, which of course was largely concerned with domestic issues.

And this brings us to the central issue not only for U.S. policy but also for the world today: Is President Barack Obama both pragmatic and a politician, or is he an ideologue who has no grasp of the real world? After almost two years we are still asking this question because very little is really known about this man.

If Obama is pragmatic and a politician he will take note of two things. First, his foreign policy has not won great applause by the American people. Second, his foreign policy has not won great applause--at least outside of Western Europe, and even there they are having their doubts--by foreign leaders.

In addition, much of his policy in the Middle East has failed, certainly regarding Israel-Palestinian issues, Lebanon, and Syria.

Regarding Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan one can argue that he has succeeded, respectively, in putting on tougher sanctions, withdrawing U.S. troops, and continuing the war against the Taliban. This success, however, may be most deceptive. Iran is hurt by the sanctions but is continuing full speed ahead toward nuclear weapons. Iraq is in crisis, with no government, continuing violence, and growing Iranian influence. Afghanistan is teetering between the government's collapse and some kind of poisonous deal with the Taliban.

Here, though, we come on the secret of Obama's Middle East policy, which has worked relatively well for him: try to maximize quiet and minimize conflict. What many have failed to recognize is that by appeasing, flattering, and engaging, Obama has avoided any open crisis or confrontation. This makes it possible to tell the American public that things are going well, they are not hated, and there is no new impending war. On terrorism, the United States has been lucky to avoid some new catastrophic attack. It is possible to argue credibly, then, that things are going okay.

Of course, the problem with this approach is that a crisis postponed is a crisis intensified. As Iran moves toward nuclear weapons, the radicals advance, Lebanon is lost, the Turkish regime joins the enemy, Hamas is made secure in the Gaza Strip, the U.S. position in the region deteriorates.

But returning to Obama, the question is whether he will act pragmatically and as a politician, or be deaf to experience and information to act as an ideologue. We will only know next year.

I must confess that it is hard for me to believe that Obama and his administration will act in a suicidal manner, both politically and strategically, but it could happen. One concern is the policy process. After all, if Obama is going to change course someone on his team is going to have to persuade him to do so.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton can't do it because she is distrusted as a political rival. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates can't do it because he is distrusted as a Bush Administration carry-over and is too much of a careerist to speak out. This leaves the White House staff, the most ideological and internationally inexperienced sector of the government. The national security advisor is now a "yes-man" who isn't going to persuade the president of anything.

At some point, there might be a political operative who is going to say: If you are going to be reelected you must do things differently. That man is David Axelrod, the architect of Obama's rise who is now working on his reelection. It is hard to imagine anyone else capable of turning around Obama unless he himself decides that major foreign policy shifts are needed.

The word "pragmatic" here means that he will take note of failed policies and adjust them. The word "politician" means that he will not follow the unpopular course of bashing Israel. He will also want to avoid looking foolish, promising to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and failing; pledging a quick solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue and failing.

And the goal of this, of course, would be his reelection as president in 2012.

It is a measure of Obama's unpredictability and uniqueness that the above cannot be taken for granted. Obama may really believe that he is anointed to bring about an Israel-Palestinian "solution." By trying to impose a settlement? By recognizing a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence? Who can say?

Equally, he can continue to be blind to Syria's behavior, Turkey's regime, Lebanon's drowning, and the Arab loss of faith in a strong, protective America.

How many Barack Obama's do you need to change a light bulb? Only one. But he's going to have to want to change it.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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Obama can make peace, but mustn't force a final deal

If anyone in Jerusalem had hoped the Tea Party would save the settlers' party, they were seriously mistaken

By Ari Shavit

Haaretz, 04.11.10

There were no real surprises in the U.S. midterm elections. The Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives but not the Senate, came out strong in Kentucky but not California, grabbed a majority of seats, but did not enjoy a overwhelming victory.

Barack Obama is still there. He's weakened but undefeated, bruised but not beaten - moderately wounded.


If anyone in Jerusalem had hoped the Tea Party would save the settlers' party, they were seriously mistaken. The 2010 midterm election time out is over. Today is the day after the elections, after the holidays, after the foreplay.

The real game begins now and the name of the game is Palestine. The endgame: establishing a viable Palestinian state within a year.

Why? Because the incumbent American president identifies with the Palestinians and their suffering and wants to do right by them. Because the American president believes establishing a Palestinian state would placate the Arab Muslim world, which he wishes to appease. Because the American president knows that in the absence of good news in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, Palestine is his only chance of making positive headlines.

Only a Palestinian state would justify the Nobel Peace prize he received, only it can give Obama the international legacy he craves, only it can lift the spirit of Obama's self-defined liberal camp.

So in 2011 Palestine will be to the resolute president what health care reform was to him in 2009. For better or worse, through fire or water, wisely or foolishly - Barack Hussein Obama will see to the establishment of the state of Palestine.

In a certain sense, the president's resolve is to be commended. It's good to have a world leader trying to save the two-state solution at the last moment. It's good to have a world leader willing to invest huge resources to implement the two-state solution. It's good to have statesman who still has a sufficient sense of justness to understand that the present situation is intolerable. It's good to have a statesman naive enough to think he can fix the world.

But in another sense Obama's determination is dangerous. Speed is from the devil, as the Arab saying goes. Simplism is a recipe for disaster. The path to hell is paved with good intentions not anchored in reality.

Bill Clinton tried to impose democracy on the Middle East and failed. If Obama tries to impose an end to the conflict prematurely, he will upset the stability, encourage violence and leave chaos in his wake.

The dilemma is acute: political correctness or political reason; puristic policy trying to build a castle in the sky or sober policy trying to change reality on the ground.

In actuality, the most positive process taking place in the region is Salam Fayyad's. A new, building, thriving Palestinian society is being formed in the West Bank.

Unless the Fayyad process is given a substantial political dimension, it will collapse. But it will also collapse if it is given an an unachievable political horizon. The wise thing to do is to tailor the quiet Palestinian revolution a political suit that fits it. Not to try to close the refugee case in two months, not to try to solve the Jerusalem problem in two weeks, not to let ideology and theology put impassable hurdles before the Palestinians and Israelis.

The only way is an interim agreement, which would minimize the occupation without ending the conflict and without endangering Israel.

The coming weeks will be decisive. Obama, even after losses at home, has enough power to coerce Israel. He can confront it, isolate it and impose a false peace on it.

But Obama does not have enough power to turn the fake into real. He cannot topple Hamas, revoke the demand for return and turn a Palestine into a peace-loving state. So if he insists on forcing the issue, all hell will break loose.

In contrast, if he chooses the pragmatic path - he has a good chance of making a change. Only a partial, not final, peace, will grant the Nobel laureate the peace he is pursuing.

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In election defeat, Obama may now better understand PM

By HERB KEINON

Jerusalem Post, 03/11/2010    

Analysis: Facing hard new choices himself, the US president could have more sympathy for Netanyahu's domestic political considerations.
 
SAN FRANCISCO - In the tidal wave of words that flooded the US airwaves Tuesday night following the midterm elections that saw the Republicans re-take the House of Representatives, three words were conspicuously absent: "foreign policy" and "Israel."
 
Both before and after the results came pouring in, dozens of analysts on networks from Fox to CNN and NBC were looking at and dissecting the results from every conceivable angle and direction, analyzing what happened and what message the Republican thumping of the Democrats at the polls sent to US President Barack Obama.
 
But very few words were spent talking about the Middle East diplomatic process, Israel or the Palestinians.

The US voter sent Obama a clear message Tuesday night, rejecting his domestic program -- the president's signature health care program, his economic stimulus package, his bailouts. The message was for lower taxes and less government. It had nothing to do, however, with foreign policy, Israel or the Palestinians.
 
There were those who over the last few weeks have said that once the elections were over, the US President would have a free hand for at least a year, until the 2012 presidential race began in earnest after Labor Day next September, to come down hard on Israel without having to face the displeasure of Jewish donors to the Democratic party, or Jewish voters.

There were others who argued the exact opposite, saying that once the midterm election ended, Obama would need to begin thinking seriously about re-election, and as a result would not do anything - such as pressuring Israel while stroking the Palestinians - that could further alienate Jewish support.
 
But the most likely scenario is that that as far as the President's overall Middle East policy is concerned, Jerusalem - despite Tuesday's results - will see more of the same from the Obama.
 
Obama has been very consistent regarding his perception of our conflict, and the way to resolve it. Over the last few months there has been a tactical change regarding his tone toward Israel, but not an overall strategic shift in how he views the conflict or its solution. And that is unlikely to change now.
 
Obama's commitment to remaining heavily engaged in the diplomatic process, to working toward a two state solution, and to publicly coming out against construction in the settlements, is not likely to change as a result of the elections, or the resounding defeat his party received. He will not, justifiably, interpret that defeat as a vote on his Middle East policies.
 
But where there may be some change is his appreciation of the genuine political constraints facing Prime MInister Binyamin Netanyahu, something that may impact on his overall relationship with the prime minister.
 
Over the last few weeks, numerous stories have been coming out of Washington saying there was a good deal of frustration and anger at Netanyahu inside the Administration for using domestic political "excuses" as a reason for not responding positively to Obama's call to extend the settlement moratorium that expired on September 26, something that would have kept the Palestinians at the negotiating table.
 
According to these reports, while Obama and his Middle East advisers appreciate that Netanyahu does indeed have coaltion constrainsts, and that if he moved too far - or went back on his promise and extended the settlement moratorium - then he risked losing his coaliton and perhaps even the premiership, they do not see this as a legitimate excuse. The president, according to these reports, believes that the role of a leader is to lead, and expected Netanyahu to do just that, even if the personal political price he would have to pay would be high indeed.
 
Tuesday's results may give Obama a better understanding of Netanyahu's dilemma, since Obama will now - as a result of the thunderous loss his party took in the elections - either have to take political reality into account and steer his domestic policies to the center, or face defeat if he, as is widely expected, decides to run again in 2012.

As one pundit said Tuesday night, Obama's choice is now either to be a pragmatist - as Bill Clinton proved to be in 1994 when he suffered a mid-term election disaster and then quickly adjusted his polices and moved toward the center - or be an ideologue and possibly burn himself up in the next election.
 
The starkness of the real political choices Obama himself will have to make after Tuesday may give him a better appreciation of the real political challenges Netanyahu is up against. And the Administration may no longer view Netanyahu's "domestic political considerations" as just a convenient "excuse" designed to wiggle out of having to negotiate.

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