Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office won’t be biting their fingernails tomorrow, hoping for a miracle that will save the Democratic Party from a setback in the congressional elections. In Benjamin Netanyahu’s circles, many are hoping that a weak Obama will be good for Israel. They assume that a president who has had his wings clipped in the middle of his first term will devote the second half of his term to fighting for reelection.
And it is no secret that snow on the roof of a house that a voter in Oklahoma lost last year interests him more than a construction freeze in Elkana. That is, assuming the settlement freeze interests him at all.
This is not the first time Netanyahu has proved that not everyone who speaks with an American accent understands America. Nor is the learning curve followed by this prime minister, who was educated in the United States, a cause for wonder. Netanyahu has learned that a Democratic president who loses a majority in both houses of Congress in the middle of his first term can be more of a “problem” for the Israeli right during the term’s second half.
Last week marked the 15th anniversary of the U.S. law calling for the American Embassy to be relocated to Jerusalem. As opposition leader, Netanyahu concocted this law with his Republican friends, who won a historic victory (after 40 years of Democratic control on Capitol Hill) in the 1994 congressional elections. At the time, Democratic President Bill Clinton announced to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole that, despite recognizing of the depth of the feelings that some Congress members have about Jerusalem, he would not accept any action that could hamper peace negotiations. Clinton signed an order suspending the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 (as did his successor, George W. Bush, with Obama following in their footsteps).
During Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, from 1996-1999, the tense relations between the liberal U.S. President and the conservative Congress did not help him push his agenda. After Netanyahu authorized the controversial opening of a tunnel near the Western Wall tunnel (which he called the “bedrock of our existence”), Clinton dragged him to Washington for a sulha, or reconciliation meeting, with Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu’s conservative friends in Washington did not extricate him from the Hebron agreement, which led to the resignation of Minister Benny Begin, or from the Wye River Memorandum, which outraged the settlers and shortened Netanyahu’s term in office.
In the early 1990s, when the young Netanyahu served as deputy foreign minister in the Shamir government, he played a central role in the dangerous game of pitting Congress against the White House. Bibi and his friends in Jewish organizations and Israel’s embassy in Washington promised that they would mobilize Congress, then controlled by the Democrats, for the purpose of forcing the Republican administration to help Israel take in immigrants from the former Soviet union, despite the country’s refusal to institute a settlement freeze. Even though this was an election season in the United States, George H.W. Bush didn’t budge; Likud lost the loan guarantees, and lost power in Israel. Even if Obama’s party loses a majority in both houses tomorrow, he will still be able to abide by objectives that he set for himself in foreign policy in general, and in the Israeli-Arab peace process in particular.
Obstacles that the Republicans are expected to put in his path regarding domestic legislation are likely to enhance the president’s ambition to secure successes outside of American borders. When it comes to foreign policy, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces has a clear edge over the House and the Senate.
As they say in basic training, “There is no such thing as ‘I can’t,’ there is only ‘I don’t want to.’” In Obama’s case, there isn’t any such thing as “I don’t want to” either. Should he desire to avoid dealing with the Middle East conflict, the conflict will hound him. Should the American president not be disposed to advance final-status negotiations in the months ahead, the Palestinian leaders will look elsewhere. When Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps also Russia and France, submit to the United Nations a resolution proposing recognition of the Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967, borders, Obama will not be able to sit on the fence.
Support for such a resolution, or even abstention, would cause a major crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations. On the other hand, a vote (with Micronesia?) against the entire world would harm America’s status in this volatile region. Should the wind get knocked out of the sails of the president of the United States, there will be rejoicing in the presidential palace in Tehran, in government offices in Gaza, and in Hezbollah headquarters in Beirut.
There won’t be any cause for celebration tomorrow in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
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