Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

US Mideast Policy and the Congressional Elections

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Update from AIJAC

November 12, 2014
Number 11/14 #02

This Update features comment on how last week's US Congressional election - which saw the Republicans gain control of the Senate to add to their majority in the House of Representatives and made other major political gains - may affect US Middle East policy up until Nov. 2016, when a successor to US President Barack Obama will be elected.

First up, Washington political reporter Julian Pecquet of al-Monitor provides a solid general summary of a number of Mideast policy areas where Congressional Republicans are likely to seek to have influence (details on what the Republicans are saying about their foreign policy plans are here). These include Syria and Iraq and the war against ISIS, relations with Israel - recently rocked by the "chickenshit" attacks on the PM Netanyahu from within the Administration - and relations with Egypt's military government, but the most important will be the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Pecquet notes that a new sanctions bill against Iran which the Administration had previously managed to bury is almost certain to be passed in January, possibly even at veto-proof levels, and that other forms of close scrutiny of US negotiations with Iran are being planned by the new Congressional leaders. For this good general summary of what the Republicans are likely to seek to do, and what leverage they have, CLICK HERE. An excellent look at the history of Congressional attempts to influence US foreign policy, demonstrating the limits of Congress' role, comes from American writer and columnist Michael Barone.

Next up, Israel writer and thinktanker Shmuel Rosner goes into the Iranian nuclear policy issue in more detail, including considering what may happen between the White House and Congress in the event of a number of future contingencies. These are: a breakdown in the nuclear talks, an indefinite extension of the talks after the Nov. 24 deadline, or a nuclear agreement being reached of the sort that looks achievable at the moment - that is, one likely to be unacceptable to Republican critics of the President's Iran policy. Rosner predicts a number of measures designed to assert Congressional influence regardless of what happens, and also discusses the likely role of Democrats and the possibility of being able to override a presidential veto of new legislation in some circumstances. For his important analysis with all the details, CLICK HERE. Rosner also had an excellent piece in the New York Times on the weekend about the background to recent clashes in Jerusalem. Plus, more on Congress' options vis a vis Iran comes from the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington thinktank.

Finally, veteran Israeli diplomat turned academic Oded Eran offers some advice to the Israeli Government on dealing with the change in Washington. In particular, he stresses that it is a bad idea to give the appearance of being partisan in US politics and urges that in any case, it is important to recognise that Congress' ability to change the Administation's foreign policy stances are quite limited. He advises a policy of balance and restraint designed to minimise the friction with the current Administration over the next two years. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE.

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Democrats' defeat may make US more hawkish in Middle East

  Julian Pecquet

Al-Monitor,  November 6, 2014

The Democrats' crushing defeat in the Nov. 4 midterm elections has paved the way for a more hawkish US role in the Middle East, starting with the Iran nuclear talks.

Republicans have gained control of the Senate and strengthened their lock on the House in what amounts to a referendum on President Barack Obama's policies, including his failure to foresee and forestall the rise of the Islamic State (IS). The unexpectedly lopsided victory creates intense political pressure on Obama to shift course, not only on Iran but also with regard to Syria/Iraq, Israel, Egypt and other Middle East issues.

One of the first priorities for the new Republican Senate will be deciding the role it wants to play in overseeing — and possibly derailing — the negotiations with Iran, which are still expected to produce some kind of deal or at least an agreement to keep talking by the Nov. 24 deadline. The Democrat-controlled Senate managed to stave off a vote on bipartisan sanctions legislation this year following an intense lobbying campaign by the administration, but the new Republican leadership will most likely demand a say.

One top contender for a vote is a bill by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Banking Committee Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would slap new sanctions on Iran if it fails to abide by its previous agreements. It has garnered 60 co-sponsors — including 17 Democrats (several of whom lost re-election) and all but two Republicans. Rank-and-file members will demand a vote when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., replaces Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in January.

"I expect that the Senate will be Republican-controlled after the next election," Kirk told Al-Monitor back in September. "And the first thing up should be Menendez-Kirk."

Following Tuesday's elections, Republicans will control at least 52 seats and possibly as many as 54 (elections in Virginia, Alaska and Louisiana have still not been called). If the bill is reintroduced again next year and past supporters sign back up, it could attract 67 co-sponsors — enough to break a veto by Obama. In the House, where Republicans gained at least 13 seats on Tuesday, similar legislation passed 400-20 last year.

Another bill that could come up for a vote is legislation from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, that would put lawmakers on the record supporting or opposing any deal reached between the White House and the Iranian leadership. While nonbinding, a "joint resolution of disapproval" would make it that much more difficult politically for the Obama administration to unilaterally relax sanctions on Iran, a requirement for Iran to make any concessions on its end.

Beyond legislative action, Republicans are also expected to turn the heat up on Iran talks through their oversight powers. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who is in line to take over the House Intelligence panel, told The Daily Beast Nov. 5 that he wants to investigate back-channel talks going back several years between Iran and the United States.

"There is going to be real scrutiny from the House and Senate in what’s taken place on the entire Obama administration’s tenure dealing with the Iranians,” Nunes reportedly said.

While the Republican Congress holds strong cards on Iran through its ability to potentially derail a deal, it can also play an important role on several other fronts, including:

Syria/Iraq

Obama will come under intense pressure to take a more forceful role in combating not only IS but also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when his longtime critic John McCain, R-Ariz., takes over the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has long called on the United States to arm vetted Syrian rebels and wants to reverse cuts to the national defense budget.

"Republican control of the Senate = expanded neocon wars in Syria and Iraq. Boots on the ground are coming!" tweeted former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian critic of US intervention abroad.

Obama quickly acknowledged the need to get lawmakers' buy-in for his IS strategy following Tuesday's rout by calling on Congress to give him new war-making authority in a post-election speech.

"I'm going to begin engaging Congress over a new Authorization to Use Military Force against [IS]," Obama said Wednesday. "The world needs to know we are united behind this effort, and the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support."

Israel/Palestine

Tuesday's elections are widely seen as good news for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose poor relations with Obama reached their nadir last month with the publication of a US article quoting an unnamed administration official calling him a "chickenshit." The Republican victory is seen as tying the administration's hands to some extent in its ability to strike a nuclear deal with Iran that doesn't have Israel's blessing, while creating momentum for efforts to cut aid to the Palestinians as well as the UN agency that handles Palestinian refugees.

Egypt

Finally, the Republican victory could mean good news for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. One of his top congressional critics, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will lose his gavel as chairman of the Appropriations panel that oversees foreign aid in January, potentially opening the door to legislative changes that would allow the Obama administration to release $650 million worth of military hardware that's currently blocked by Congress.

Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor's Congressional Correspondent. He previously led The Hill's Global Affairs blog. 

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Will the new Senate really ‘kill’ an agreement with Iran?

by Shmuel Rosner

Jewish Week, Nov. 10

As negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program reach their peak this week – with the November 24 deadline getting closer – the political situation in the US is much different from that of a week and a half ago. This raises the obvious question: does a new, Republican and more combative, Senate impact negotiations and a future agreement with Iran? On Friday evening, attending the Israeli American Council’s inaugural national conference at the Washington Hilton, I heard former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney hitting President Obama hard for his reported letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The President, Romney said, “continues to diminish himself and America, these acts of his that unfortunately lead bad people to assume that American can be pushed around and I find it very unfortunate”.

Whether one agrees with Romney or not, his harsh criticism is typical of the new Senate majority. In meetings I had in Washington last week I asked several policy makers how many Republican Senators they expect would vote for strengthening the sanctions against Iran, if such a proposal is back on the table. The estimation runs from 52 Senators (leaving the two opposing Senators from the last round out), to 53 (including Senator Rand Paul in the majority vote). They also estimated that 10-15 Democratic Senators could vote for more sanctions even if the Obama administration opposes such a move. “Would there be a veto-proof majority? That’s hard to tell”, one of them told me. “But it is not impossible”.

Imagine – he said – what happens if Hillary Clinton publically says that the time has come for stronger sanctions. “All of a sudden, we could see how the Democratic minority in the Senate moves to associate itself with the next prospective President rather than with the current President”.

Clinton supporter and philanthropist Haim Saban said Sunday morning in Washington that more sanctions are needed: “we’ve shown too many carrots and a small stick”. This should not surprise all those who have been following the thinking in the Clinton camp about Iran. Consider the view on Iran Hillary Clinton expressed not long ago: “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position”.

Clinton’s position, reasonably, depends on the details of the agreement, or lack thereof. And activity in the Senate also depends on what the administration is able to accomplish in the next two weeks until the deadline. Two things are going to happen, though, regardless of the outcome, and these things are already in the making:

One – the warnings from proponents of the sanctions bill (the legislation was shelved at the beginning of the year due to administration pressure) will increase in number and will become more severe in tone as we get closer to the deadline (a source close to a senior Republican Senator told me: “a bad agreement with Iran would be the ultimate proof of Obama’s incompetence as a world leader”). We’ve seen it with Romney from the Republican side, and with Senator Lyndsey Graham, at the same event, promising to “kill” a “bad deal” with Iran. But we’ve heard a similar message – if a little more polite in tone – from Democratic Senator Menendez, one of the two sponsors of the shelved bill (along with Senator Kirk).

Two – it will not be just rhetoric, it will also be action. On January, Graham promised, the time for talk will be over, and the time for voting will begin. Graham would like to reassert the role and the centrality of Congress in the process of negotiations with Iran by passing a bill that makes it mandatory for the administration to put any agreement to an “up or down” vote in Congress. Senators would also like to redraw for the administration the lines beyond which an agreement does not pass the “laugh test”, as one Washington insider defined it.

Of course, the administration might not accept the “lines” and the “demands” of a new Congress. It can decide to wave the sanctions away unilaterally. But it has a problem: it cannot remove them from the books – only Congress can do that. “Believe me, the Iranians know this and would want to make sure that they do not sign an agreement and then are hit back with sanctions as soon as Obama leaves office”, an aid to a senior legislator told me. Trita Parsi wrote similarly in Foreign Affairs: “Absent a permanent lifting of the relevant U.S. sanctions on Iran – which would require an act of Congress – the agreement would never hold”.

So the new Republican majority could probably damage or kill an agreement. The question, of course, is if it wants to. What happens after the speeches are made and the letters are signed and sent? Three different scenarios can be drawn – depending on what happens in negotiations:

1. No agreement, no talks

That's the easy one. If talks fail to provide for any agreement and break down, the way for a new round of sanctions will be cleared. On Sunday, Obama warned that a deal might not be possible. So maybe in a short while the administration itself would support a new round to put more pressure on Iran. A handful of Republicans (one or two) and Democratic leftists (as many as 10) could still oppose the new legislation, but it would pass with flying colors. Republicans would, of course, still use the occasion to sting the administration (and the Democratic Party) for not letting the legislation pass long ago.

2. No agreement, extension of talks

Things become more complicated in such a case. But we can expect Congress to act in one of a few ways if the administration agrees to keep talking. It can move very quickly, with the support of the current Democratic leadership – a leadership that has diminishing political reasons to be attentive to the concerns of the Obama administration – to pass the Kirk-Menendez bill. Or it can pass it with an activation mechanism that puts the sanctions to work as soon as the next deadline expires (unless there is an agreement good enough for the Senate to reconsider the bill). Or it can wait with it for the Republican majority and then pass it in one of the two above-mentioned forms.

The Obama administration would need to make a decision at some point on whether it wants to engage Congress in the hope that it can have impact on the language of the legislation – or it can decide not to engage a Republican majority on this issue and rely on the veto power of the president and on his ability to waive the sanctions.

3. Agreement

What the Republican majority is going to do if there’s an agreement on the table is hard to foresee without having the full details of the agreement before us. But there are many signs that leaders in Congress, and not just on the Republican side, could not be easily impressed by any agreement that the Obama administration is likely to provide. If they are not impressed, they’ll want to clarify their position and they’ll want to try to sabotage the agreement. That is, unless the administration is able to A. provide them with assurances that the agreement is really a “good” agreement – one that truly puts a stop to Iran’s military nuclear program, or B. convince the majority of the public that the agreement is good – and put the pressure on the opponents who would not want to be seen as “war mongers” (public opinion on the issue of Iran can be very confusing).

The administration could also try to ignore Congress or try to circumvent it by using several means. One possibility that was recently mentioned to concerned Israel officials: the Obama administration could turn to the UN to lift the international sanctions on Iran, and by doing so it could also mobilize the business community in the US to put pressure on Congress to lift the American sanctions – so as not to remain the only business community that does not profit from the thaw in relations with Iran. Naturally, Congress is not going to let Obama ignore it in such a way without responding. Maybe such speculation was behind Senator Graham’s implied threat to “cut off” funding to the UN (Graham did not link the threat to Iran – he said he’d cut funding if the UN “keep this Israeli bashing up”).

So here’s what to expect:

No matter what happens: letters and statements that define what “a good agreement” means.

No matter what happens: the drafting of legislation that makes it mandatory to get Congressional approval for a deal (it will pass, but a veto proof majority seems unlikely at this time – possibly later).

If there is no deal or a bad deal: the drafting of legislation that puts more sanctions on Iran (it will pass – but a veto proof majority depends on having no deal or a majority agreeing that the administration presented a bad deal)

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The United States Congressional Elections: The Significance for Israel

Oded Eran

INSS Insight No. 627, November 9, 2014

President Barack Obama’s first six years in the White House were marked by personal strain between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and disagreements between them on key issues, above all the Israeli-Palestinian political process and the Iranian nuclear issue. While the two leaders have met many times, sharp disagreements have continued to cloud their relations. The coming two years will severely test the relations between the two leaders and US-Israel bilateral relations, due to the complexity of the issues on the agenda and the results of the recent American elections, which gave the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress. A full-blown confrontation between a Congress controlled by one party and a president from the other party usually has negative internal consequences, with the president deemed a lame duck during the two remaining years of his term. This article, however, examines how the expected tension between Congress and the President will affect Israel.

This is not the first time in American political history that this political configuration has occurred. For Israel, such situations create a dilemma, if not a trap that Israel has sought to avoid. Israel has always stressed its reliance on bipartisan support, and has tried to create a broad coalition based on cooperation across party lines. Every so often, Israeli prime ministers and ministers have slipped by failing to withstand the temptation to express their opinion for or against candidates and presidents in office, but a policy of political neutrality has generally been maintained. At the same time, there has been an increasing sense in recent years that the Israeli prime minister and other senior Israeli officials clearly prefer the Republican Party, and presumably the results of the November 2014 elections were well received by many in Israel. Yet without deflating the political satisfaction, those enjoying it should understand the consequences of the situation created between the US administration and Congress for matters that are of vital interest to Israel.

The US Congress is not a substitute for the administration, which has the executive power. For example, Congress decides how much defense aid to allot to Israel – whether in response to requests from the administration, or on its own initiative. It has already happened in the past that due to a confrontation with Israel, the administration sought to reduce aid to Israel, but Congress refused. In both of the key issues on the agenda – the political process and the Iranian nuclear issue – that will command much political focus and activity in the near future, Congress can recommend policy, criticize Obama, and try to create difficulties if it believes that his policy is incorrect. However, Congress cannot prevent the president from acting one way or another. If and when a draft resolution on the Palestinian issue is brought before the UN Security Council, Congress cannot force the President to cast a veto. American administration officials are already preparing a resolution that will avoid the casting of an American veto in the Security Council (even without any reference to East Jerusalem, the resolution is unacceptable to Israel, because it refers to the 1967 borders with agreed exchanges of territory). Congress, however, cannot instruct the administration to accept any particular version, nor can it issue instruction on how the US should vote in the Security Council. Furthermore, even Israel’s closest and most dedicated friends in Congress will likely not consider “punishing” the President through legislative action having nothing to do with foreign policy matters. That has not happened in the past, and will presumably not happen in the future.

If the US does not veto a US Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be assumed that three quarters of the Senate will sign an angry letter to the President, but the letter will not change his position, even if it arrives before the vote. Three decades ago, Congress stopped US allocations to a number of international organizations, including UNESCO, when they passed vehemently anti-Israeli resolutions. Congress can threaten to repeat this precedent, but the process is a complicated one, and probably cannot be planned and executed in the few weeks left for discussion, if any, in the Security Council.

The situation regarding the Iranian question may be more complex, although here too Congress cannot prevent the President from signing an agreement with Iran that includes concessions opposed by senior Republicans. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, there are possible effective actions that Congress can take; for example, it can delay the rescinding of the sanctions legislated by Congress. Such action, or similar action, will necessarily position Israel in the middle of a confrontation between the administration and Congress. This does not mean that Israel is not entitled to criticize a possible agreement with Iran and to voice this criticism to the Congress. At the same time, Israel should avoid appearing to incite the Republican-controlled Congress to act against a Democratic administration. Israel’s situation in this context will be more comfortable if those criticizing the agreement with Iran before and after it is signed include members of both parties.

Both the Israeli government and the US administration will need much restraint in Obama’s last two years as president in order to prevent a further deterioration in the bilateral relations and the recourse to respective political party frameworks during the debate between them. Yet beyond the immediate aspect of managing the tension on the Palestinian and Iranian fronts, Israel should take into account the demographic-political changes taking place in the US, including those occurring in different generations and sectors of the Jewish population. In addition, minority groups, whose political involvement has been negligible for many years, are expanding their influence, whether because they account for a larger proportion of the population, or because they have simply become more active. These include ethnic, ideological, and other minorities (such as the homosexual community, for example) that rely on greater openness in American society, and are therefore identified with the Democratic Party. The historical and ideological affinity with Israel and the recognition of the special status of Israel-US relations are unknown to large parts of these populations. The media, which reports the ongoing friction between the administration and Israel, exacerbates the damage to Israel’s image in American public opinion. Given this background, an unqualified identification with a party considered conservative is not to Israel’s benefit.

Furthermore, the sweeping Republican victory in the Congressional elections indicates virtually nothing about the 2016 presidential elections. On November 4, 2014, the US cast a vote of criticism and protest against an incumbent president, and not necessarily a vote in favor of Republican ideology. At the very least, therefore, Israeli politicians should look forward to 2016, and remember that while a president in office caused his party to lose control of the Senate, a charismatic presidential candidate is likely to carry candidates from his party to victory. Moreover, the voting pattern of the American Jewish community remains solidly inclined toward the Democrats, even if the percentage has declined somewhat. Balance and restraint are therefore the name of the game for Israel in Washington – until January 2016, and beyond.

Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, served as director of INSS from July 2008 to November 2011, following a long career in Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government positions.

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