As congressmen old and new shuffle back to Washington following the holiday season and new Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John Boehner, receives the gavel from Nancy Pelosi, now is a good time to examine what Israel can expect from Washington in the coming year.
Washington is welcoming 96 newcomers into the House of Representatives and 16 newcomers into the Senate. There is no doubt that the influx of Republicans, accompanied by several vocal Tea Party members, is a change that could cause many political battles, from an attempt to repeal the president's healthcare reform, to deciding where the budget should be cut.
As for what all of this means for Israel, several issues stand out.
The first is foreign aid, which, with the newcomers on board, we can expect efforts to be made to cut it. Incoming Majority leader Eric Cantor and incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are committed to preserving foreign aid for Israel as well as Republicans, which have, for the most part, shown a strong commitment to the U.S. role as a diplomat in the Middle East. There is no doubt that the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC will ensure that support for Israel remains bipartisan, although the left-wing pro-peace lobby J-Street may be received less warmly in House where Republicans are the majority.
The second issue is the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. U.S. special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell has no immediate plans to visit the region, but U.S. State Department Envoy Dennis Ross is expected in Israel this week. Although one may think that this indicates a shift in the peace process-related responsibilities from the White House to the State Department, it is more likely born out of the signature Israeli thinking "if the door is shut, we'll try the window." It might be more difficult for the President Barak Obama's administration to take on Israel publicly, but following the settlements freeze fiasco, no one feels the need to do it again so soon.
As the elections of 2012 draw nearer, there is the possibility that we will see some potential Republican presidential candidates going to Israel for a publicity visit. A visit by President Obama is yet to happen, but with the endless bickering between Palestinian and Israeli leadership, another sour-faced photo-op without tangible results is the least inspiring thing to do for all involved.
Looking to other countries in the region, the question remains on weather the U.S. foreign policy will become more hawkish. But in all likelihood, there will be no attack on Iran, even despite the recent snub Teheran doled out by not inviting the U.S. to visit their nuclear sites. The war in Afghanistan is still looking like a long-term commitment, even though the U.S. is disenchanted with President Hamid Kharzai and they have promised to begin pulling out troops beginning in the summer of 2011.
President Obama will be the one to set the agenda; if it involves flexing military muscle, Republicans are likely to support it no matter the cost.
The Obama administration is going through a period of change with lots of staffers leaving, from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to First Lady Michelle Obama's Chief of Staff Susan Sher (who served as a White House liaison to the Jewish community in her other capacity).
A former administration official was hestitant to draw conclusion on why so many people were stepping down from the administration.
“It’s a natural process – you must remember that some people started this race not two, but four years ago, and it’s a demanding job. Besides, some prefer to explore other opportunities and to take advantage of the moment. It’s good to shake the system a bit – after two years, some people feel too settled down," he said.
Whatever this year may bring, there is no doubt that the influx of new characters and with them, political influence, will make it an interesting one.
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