It seems fair to say that the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy has been a bust. The concept of “linkage”—on which the administration has based its approach to such thorny and specific problems as the Iranian nuclear program, the shakiness of the Iraqi political system, Syrian backing for violence, and the rise of Iranian-backed militias like Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Iranian take-over of Lebanon—has been clearly revealed as a species of magical thinking the main virtue of which appears to be that it absolves the United States of actually having to address problems that get worse with each passing month.
But if every new administration makes mistakes, and learns from them, President Barack Obama’s self-appointed task of bringing peace to the Middle East may get more difficult with the mid-term elections Tuesday, when the House, and perhaps the Senate, will fall into the hands of a Republican party that is poised to push back against an administration that is commonly perceived as less friendly to Israel than its predecessors.
House Republicans have pitched their rhetoric high. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, for instance, described the current White House as “the most anti-Israel administration in the modern history of the state of Israel.” Indeed, there’s some concern in pro-Israel circles that the bipartisan nature of support for the Jewish state is starting to show cracks. Fifty-four Congressional Democrats (but no Republicans) signed a letter urging Obama to “press for immediate relief for the citizens of Gaza” suffering under Israel’s blockade. A few months later 78 House Republicans wrote a letter to the Israeli Prime Minister expressing their “steadfast support” for him and Israel. The same divide seems to hold true with the electorate as well. An October poll conducted for the Emergency Committee for Israel showed that of “those intending to vote Republican this fall, 69 percent would be more likely to vote for a candidate who was pro-Israel” while only 40 percent of Democratic voters are more likely to vote for a pro-Israel candidate. It appears that the new Congress will be very much in line with the man likely to become its new majority leader, Virginia’s Eric Cantor, the House’s lone Jewish Republican, who recently told the White House that playing “hardball” with Israel “jeopardizes our national security.”
The emergence of Israel as a partisan political football is representative of not only a political difference but a philosophical one as well. One segment of the American political class sees Israel as an exceptional, and like-minded, ally and the other sees it as merely another nation-state—and a problematic one at that. Obama, it seems, is of the latter camp. He came to office with the hardly novel idea that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the Middle East’s central issue and that ending the conflict would cool off the Muslim masses whose hatred of the United States is supposedly tied to Washington’s “unconditional support” for Israel. A peace deal would also be a powerful means—perhaps the only available means, given the improbability of any kind of further American military action in the Middle East—of reducing the strength of the region’s radical actors, especially Iran.
The president pushed the Israelis hard, which only gave the Palestinian Authority incentive not to negotiate but rather to wait for Obama to deliver the Israelis. Domestically, the administration’s bullying of Israel angered some key Democrats, like New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer and many Jewish Democratic donors. Once the midterms are over, Obama will have at least six months before he has to worry about alienating Jewish fund-raisers for his 2012 re-election campaign. Then, as one source in Washington’s pro-Israel community puts it, “we will see what the administration has learned in 18 months; if they’ve understood that the way to move the process forward is to make the Israelis feel confident by embracing them in friendship, and not club Netanyahu like a fish you’re reeling in.”
It’s not clear yet how, or if, the divide over Israel within the administration has been resolved. Both the pro-Israel faction and the faction less friendly to the Jewish state have lost prominent figures (including former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel from the former and James Jones, the national security adviser, from the latter). In another internal fight, it appears that Dennis Ross is gaining the upper hand on George Mitchell, who has dropped his chief of staff, Mara Rudman, who was famously in favor of ratcheting up the pressure on the Israelis. But it was the secretary of State who gave perhaps the clearest indication of where things stand in the administration with one of the most sober assessments in the history of American Middle East diplomacy. “The future holds the possibility of progress,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told guests at the American Task Force for Palestine’s annual banquet last week, “if not in our lifetimes, then certainly in our children’s.”
If the State Department is clearly chastened by the failures of the past 18 months, the fact is that the president makes foreign policy. And this particular commander-in-chief has shown not only a reluctance to delegate important matters to subordinates (as Bush handed off all Middle East policy, save Iraq, to Condoleezza Rice), but also that he is willing to stand his ground to do what he thinks is right and only he can get done, regardless of the political cost. For their part, the Republicans will do what they can to put on the brakes.
Already Eric Cantor has touched off a minor crisis by suggesting that a Republican majority would seek to remove Israel from the foreign operations budget. Cantor’s proposal is to move aid to Israel over to the Pentagon in order to protect it if the GOP seeks to attack the president’s foreign aid budget by cutting funds for states that they believe do not merit U.S. aid. The fact that New York Rep. Nita Lowey, a strong supporter of Israel, has slammed Cantor’s proposal as reckless indicates that this is not about Israel but a political instrument to tie down the executive’s prerogative in making foreign policy.
It’s unlikely the Republicans will push their agenda, or counter-agenda, too far, for in the end their options are quite limited. They can call hearings on Capitol Hill, and they can challenge the White House’s Syria policy by maintaining there a hold on the appointment of the ambassador to Damascus, but too many fights with the administration will stretch the time and resources of the majority. The GOP will need to muster its strength for more pressing concerns than a moribund peace process. Despite the relative quiet in Washington over the last few months about the Iranian nuclear program, this is still a major issue for the GOP as is the deadline for the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan looming in July. The reality is that even when Obama was at the height of his powers he couldn’t force the peace process—not because of a lack of will power and volume, but because there are other political energies at work, some of them far outside the Beltway.
That’s not to say Obama won’t keep pressing. Sources close to Netanyahu’s office say that Obama is already pressuring Israel to extend the freeze. In Washington, some believe that Netanyahu will have a very hard time justifying his refusal. If he could do it for 10 months, what is it about 60 more days that imperils his coalition? If he doesn’t, Israeli sources say, the White House has threatened that it will do nothing to block the Palestinians from unilaterally declaring statehood at the United Nations.
Yet apparently Washington was just showing Jerusalem the instruments of torture while it did the same to the PA—and Abbas, who has much weaker domestic support than Netanyahu, appears to have backed down first. Instead of seeking recognition for a state within the 1967 borders, the PA will present a resolution to the Security Council stating that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal and must be evacuated. The Palestinians recognized they would lose U.S. support if they stepped out on their own and maybe even understood that very few of the member nations that matter most were predisposed to recognize such a state; they would have had more support from, say, Norway than Jordan.
In other words, the PA is trying to force an error from the White House with empty threats of its own. “Unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state is one of those things that comes up often,” says Martin Kramer, the Wexler-Fromer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. “The other is the prospect of impending violence, the next intifada.” However, as Kramer explains, were another intifada to erupt, Abbas and Salam Fayyad understand that the protection and the foreign cash that have created the West Bank’s economic boom would all go away, and they would be left alone to face Hamas.
The peace deal that Obama wants is already out of his hands. The real check on his ambitions is not a Republican majority in the House but the political forces that rule the Middle East. Fayyadism, or that combination of U.S.-sponsored transparency and accountability, is working on the West Bank—at least until Hamas decides to pull the plug on the PA, which is not going to happen so long as the IDF is sitting there. Insofar as Obama believes the status quo is unsustainable, the only other option is chaos—a chaos that he can bring about by forcing the issue yet again.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is in stasis, for the time being anyway, which presents a golden opportunity for a president faced with a hard-line opposition in control of one or both houses of Congress. Let Obama keep his peace process envoys on the run, going back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and keep expectations low. Even the smallest concessions will be chalked up as groundbreaking—if, for example, the PA agrees to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or Netanyahu gives more time on the settlement freeze—and if nothing gets accomplished, he can blame it on the Republicans. In the political arena, at least, the end of Obama’s grand ambitions may make him the winner of the next few hands of the Middle East poker game.