Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Noam Sheizaf/ The midterm election outcome from an Israeli perspective

(Noam Sheizaf-972mag).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.