Republican Sweep in House Leaves Mideast Players Uncertain Over U.S. Policy

Many members of Netanyahu's circle believe Obama will now be more constrained in pressure, while some Palestinian officials sure U.S. stance won't change.

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A U.S. midterm election rout by the Republicans, widely seen in Israel as staunch allies, could give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu further incentive to resist pressure from a weakened U.S. President Barack Obama for concessions in Middle East peace negotiations.

Several Israeli political sources said on Wednesday members of Netanyahu's inner circle were cheered by the blow dealt to a Democratic president who is sharply at odds with the right-wing prime minister over Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Palestinians, who broke off U.S.-brokered direct talks with Israel in September after Netanyahu refused to extend a limited building moratorium in West Bank settlements, said they hoped Obama would stay the course in pursuing peace.

"There is no doubt that the outcome of the election has strengthened tremendously the pro-Israeli elements in the U.S. at large, in the House of Representatives, in the Senate and throughout the political establishment," said Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli diplomat who served in the United States.

"This is going to constrain immensely the maneuverability of the president, who is generally pretty critical [even] negative towards Israel. Which would require thepresident, in my mind, to limit his pressure on Israel," he said.

But some political sources said the U.S.-educated Netanyahu was taking a more cautious view of the impact of Tuesday's vote on Obama's foreign policy and prospects for a second term.

The sources said Netanyahu was well aware that Democrat Bill Clinton, who also tried to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace, had rebounded from a Republican sweep in a 1994 midterm ballot and won re-election as president two years later.

Under international pressure to bend, Netanyahu is also believed to be working on a possible resumption of the partial freeze of housing starts in West Bank settlements in return for a package of security-related incentives from Washington.

A new moratorium could help Netanyahu avoid alienating Obama further as both Israel and the United States explore ways to deal with Iran's nuclear programme, which the West believes is aimed at producing atomic weapons, an allegation Tehran denies.

Obama is widely expected, now that the election is over, to boost U.S. diplomatic efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Time could be running out: the Arab League, on Oct. 9, gave the United States one month -- a period when the U.S. election campaign was at a peak - to persuade Israel to halt settlement construction or risk the complete collapse of the negotiations.

Next week, Netanyahu will take a personal reading of the post-election scene during a 5-day visit to the United States, where he will address the General Assembly of U.S. Jewish Federations and meet Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the stalled peace process.

The Israeli leader also plans to give a series of media interviews and officials said he was trying to arrange a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama will be on a trip to Asia at the time.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian peace negotiator, voiced confidence the Republican victories would have no bearing on the White House's Middle East policy.

"The American interests in the region do not change as a result of midterm elections," he told Voice of Palestine radio.

But George Giacaman, a Palestinian political scientist, said the Obama administration had already shown "great weakness" in standing up to Israel over settlements.

When the White House confronted Israel last year over plans for settlement expansion on land Palestinians want for a state, Republicans seized on the dispute as a sign that Obama was weak on security issues and unfairly pressuring on a trusted ally.

"Maybe there will be a period of waiting to see if the American administration plans to do some serious work but there is a great feeling of despair and hopelessness," Giacaman said.

In any case, he said, "we only have one year left" before Obama devotes his attention to a campaigning for re-election in the 2012 presidential poll.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before a meeting in New York in 2009.Credit: AP



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