Tuesday's election delivered the Senate into Republican hands and gave them the largest House majority in 80 years. What impact will this election have on America’s policy vis-à-vis Israel and the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace?
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Back in November 2010, I took on this same question in an analysis for Haaretz, after Republicans won the House of Representatives in midterm elections. My key point was: “The conventional answer is: Buckle your seat belts - we're in for a bumpy ride. The more serious answer is: It depends mainly on President Obama.”
Nothing in yesterday’s election changes that analysis.
In 2010, many predicted that the new GOP-dominated House would block Obama’s peace efforts. It didn’t. Over the past four years, the impact of the “Israel-right-or-wrong” contingent in the House (including members of both parties) has been largely limited to non-binding or dead-on-arrival, grandstanding legislation and letters to the President, and statements pandering to very narrow constituencies. In the one notable Israel-related battle in Congress in recent years (over an AIPAC-backed bill that would have compelled the Administration to add Israel to the Visa Waiver Program, despite Israel not meeting the legal qualifications for inclusion), it was the Republican-led House, not the Democrat-led Senate, that stood firmly in the way. And while today some in Congress are slamming the Obama Administration for its stance on Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, the law giving Obama room to engage a Palestinian reconciliation government was passed in the post-2010 GOP-led House.
Certainly, active support for peace efforts from members of Congress (from both parties) was conspicuously absent and could have been very helpful, sending a badly needed constructive message to an obstructive and recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that Congress didn’t seriously seek to hinder Obama’s peace efforts; the failure of those efforts no doubt has many authors, but Congress is not primary among them.
Doubtless some will argue that now, with both the House and Senate in GOP hands, Congress will play a more problematic role. This may turn out to be the case, but the belief that Congress can block any new peace efforts, assuming it wants to, is grounded more in fear than in an understanding of the foreign policy process. As I noted in 2010, “it is the president, not Congress, who is in charge of conducting U.S. foreign policy. Congress can try to obstruct him - by refusing to fund his priorities or by passing legislation intended to limit his options - and such efforts cannot be discountedBut ultimately, foreign policy belongs to the president.” This analysis is not merely hypothetical: President Clinton demonstrated with his own Middle East peace efforts in the 1990s that even the most antagonistic Congress cannot prevent a determined U.S. president from pursuing and achieving his foreign policy goals.
Over the next two years, U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will depend first and foremost on President Obama, not Congress – just as it did for the past 6 years. The question to ask, then, is what Obama, not Congress, will do.
From the day he took office, Obama has appeared determined to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His efforts thus far have floundered, due both to a lack of cooperation and political will from Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and due to his own lack of readiness to stand up to the parties – especially Netanyahu – and get them to take him seriously.
Is Obama ready to plot a more forceful course in the Israeli-Palestinian arena during these last two years in the White House? Many people believe he is – that with his commitment to Middle East peace in mind, and his legacy looming large, he is ready finally to stand up to Netanyahu, restore U.S. credibility and leadership on this issue, and perhaps achieve a breakthrough.
As an organization devoted to Israel’s security and its future as a democracy and a Jewish state, Americans for Peace Now will redouble our efforts in the coming period to press President Obama to do exactly this, knowing that if the President is resolute, Congress cannot block him. Certainly, some in Congress can be counted on to try to make his path more difficult. But just as certainly, we and others in the pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jewish community will stand up to their efforts and help members of Congress realize that true friends of Israel must support peace.
Lara Friedman is the Director of Policy & Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now. Follow her on Twitter: @Lara_APN