Change we can’t foresee

The conventional wisdom in some circles now holds that Republican gains in last week’s US congressional elections will weaken President Barack Obama’s hand in trying to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This is not necessarily so, and for several reasons.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives was elected on a socio-economic ticket that has nothing to do with the Middle East. The more extremely conservative its members, Tea Party-affiliates and others, the less they know or care about the Israel-Arab conflict. Even American Jewish voters, two-thirds of whom stuck with the Democrats, ranked Israel-related issues eighth on their list of electoral priorities.

Then too, nowhere is it written in stone that Republicans don’t care about peace in the Middle East. Two aging former secretaries of state in Republican administrations, Henry Kissinger and James Baker, can testify to that. Kissinger’s efforts after the Yom Kippur War laid the groundwork for Israel-Egypt peace; Baker leveraged the first Gulf war into the Madrid process, which produced Oslo and Israel-Jordan peace. Both were by far more threatening and demanding of Israel than the Obama administration has dared to be.

We should also keep in mind that we are looking at scenarios for Republican influence on the peace process that could take months to emerge. Meanwhile, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US this week, the Obama administration appears to be picking up where it left off with the process on the eve of US elections as if nothing has happened.

That said, the House Republican majority is welcomed by the Israeli hard-line right wing for good reason. For one, Netanyahu is simply more comfortable with the Republicans: "I speak Republican," he nervously stated a year and a half ago, in explaining his need for Israeli diplomats in the US capable of filtering his policies and explaining them to Democrats. At a more general level, a Republican House and a stronger Republican minority in the Senate might benefit the anti-peace process right wing in Israel in several ways.

One would be to pressure the administration to reduce its demands on the Netanyahu government regarding concessions to the Palestinians–whether the current settlement-freeze controversy or negotiating issues to come. Another could be to weaken pressures on Netanyahu to block right-wing initiatives to constrain civil liberties and judicial independence in Israel and impose loyalty tests on Arab citizens of Israel and their elected representatives in the Knesset. The latter issue may not be directly related to the peace process, but it could profoundly affect the Netanyahu government’s credibility in Arab and international eyes.

If the peace process fails and the PLO leadership makes good on its threat to seek confirmation of its statehood demands at the United Nations, a Republican-dominated Congress could conceivably retaliate by cutting America’s critical contribution to the UN budget and severing American financial support for West Bank institution-building programs like the Palestinian security forces that have been so successful under the recently-departed General Keith Dayton–a program initiated, incidentally, under former president George W. Bush. Such moves could be disastrous. An active US and Israeli role in framing a UN decision to recognize a Palestinian state on terms acceptable to Israel is probably the best chance for peace today.

Republican pressure on the administration could also be felt in Middle East issue-areas that indirectly affect Israel-Arab peace. For example, Obama may now be exhorted to get tougher with Iran’s nuclear program–a move Netanyahu would undoubtedly encourage, but with consequences for the region that are impossible to foresee. Congress could also get tougher with Turkey because of its initiatives to move closer to problematic states like Iran and Syria, thereby reducing openings for US-Turkish coordination in dealing with Israeli-Syrian talks and other peace process-related issues.

Beyond these speculations, it is important to bear in mind that opposition gains in a new president’s first midterm elections are a fairly common phenomenon. Even if President Obama faces a Republican-dominated Congress, he remains in charge of US foreign policy and is ostensibly free to pursue Israel-Arab accommodation according to his vision. He certainly seems as determined as ever. Indeed, if the Republicans now frustrate Obama’s domestic agenda, he may be moved to even greater activism in the foreign policy sphere.

This might mean that the combination of stalemated final status talks and an electoral setback to the administration could generate pressures within the administration to come up with a very different peace process in 2011. Special peace emissary George Mitchell might resign if his modus operandi is deemed to have failed. Things could change, though not necessarily the way Netanyahu hopes. Rather than having an easy ride with the Republicans in Washington and happily neglecting Israel’s real interest in ending the occupation, Netanyahu might face growing tensions in the Israeli-American relationship.