Bad for Obama, Bad for Israel?
Benjamin Netanyahu meeting Barack Obama at the White House last year
Hundreds of miles away from where Massachusetts Republican US Senator-elect Scott Brown gave his victory speech last week, another American politician was busy making his own statements to the press.
Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, responded to Brown's shock win in a special election for the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy's supposedly safe seat by calling the results a referendum on Obama's healthcare reforms and openly questioning how the legislation has become Obama's signature issue.
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It's a message that has implications on the Obama administration's future policies towards Israel also - but more on that in a moment.
First, some further context.
The United States has 100 members in its Senate - two for each of America's 50 states. So what's the big deal about losing just one of those seats to the opposition? After all, even after Brown's win, the Democrats outnumber the Republicans 59 to 41 in the Senate.
Unfortunately for Obama, the loss of that particular seat holds a great deal of significance. First of all, the passage of major policy legislation - including health care reform - requires the approval of a full 60 members of the Senate. Until now, under a Democratic Senate supermajority, Obama had only to convince senators from his own party to support his agenda. This is no longer the case. Now, Obama has to lure away at least one Republican vote, which considerably complicates matters.
Secondly, the symbolic value of the Republicans taking this particular seat cannot be ignored. Massachusetts is considered to be a Democratic stronghold. For a Republican to have managed to wrest away that of all seats - held for nearly half a century by Kennedy, a champion of the left flank of the Democratic party - was almost unfathomable to Americans.
If Kennedy's seat can be lost, some say no seat can be considered safe heading into the Congressional midterm elections this November.
Immaterial of the true reason for Brown's win, it is reasonable to assume that at least some members of Congress will conclude that the vote was a repudiation of Obama by the all-important independent voters that decide elections nationwide, and that is all that matters.
This is why Webb's statement was so revealing. It suggested that Obama, whose approval rating has been suffering with voters for several months now, is now losing confidence with his party's lawmakers, who are showing fading support for the President on unpopular decisions.
That brings us back to Israel. It is indisputable that the US Congress overwhelmingly supports the Jewish state. There are a number of reasons for this, but none are more important than the fact that the American people are pro-Israel themselves.
Does this mean that the majority of Americans endorse Israel's version of the Middle East conflict over the Palestinian interpretation? The answer is yes, to an extent that the most passionate Israel supporter in Britain can only fantasise about happening here.
That said, certainly over the past 30 years or so, US foreign policy in practice tends to fall in the centre-left of the Israeli political spectrum. Regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat has sat in the Oval Office, Washington has seemed most in tune with the views of Israel's Labour Party.
In the year since Obama took office, however, the US Administration's words and actions towards Israel appear to suggest a drift further left, closer to that of Meretz. This move, at the prerogative of the White House and its State Department, has not been coordinated with Congress, which continues to be comfortable with a more centrist tack in dealing with Israel - once again, in line with the views of American voters.
During Obama's presidential honeymoon, and while Obama enjoyed strong approval ratings, Congress was willing to give the president leeway to handle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process the way he saw fit.
The closer Congress gets to midterm elections, however, the more you will see many Democrats openly distance themselves from any pressure tactics perceived as unduly harsh that the Obama administration may consider taking against Israel, even with the best of intentions of moving the peace process forward.
This is simply a matter of political expedience and survival.
It may not come to that. As we have seen last week, Obama is not waiting for Congress to challenge him on Israel. He has already thrown his own Middle East peace expectations overboard to help keep other parts of his agenda afloat.
The reason? To quote Bill Clinton's campaign strategist James Carville: "It's the economy, stupid."
America is still suffering painfully high unemployment as a result of last year's recession. Until that number begins to drop in earnest, the economy will continue to be seen as a festering thorn in Obama's side.
As US press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week: "The American people understand that the focus of the president's day from the very beginning to the very end is on their economic situation." Obviously, then, the focus cannot be on Middle East peace as well.
So what will all this mean for Israel and the Palestinians? Two words: status quo. Does that mean US envoy George Mitchell is going to be out of work soon? Hardly.
Mitchell and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will continue to shuttle back and forth, reporting on various developments.
Israel will surely be asked to make more concessions to ease the life of the Palestinians and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will no doubt continue to do his best to comply. There may even be a resumption of peace talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
However, will the US try to impose a solution on Israel, as some have suggested, or otherwise take bold actions that would risk raising the ire of pro-Israel evangelical Christians and Jews? If Netanyahu and his cabinet decide not to cooperate, it is highly unlikely.
In the wake of last week's "Boston Massacre" that swept a relatively unknown Republican to the Senate, and with midterm elections looming on the horizon, there are just too many reasons for the US President not to pick this particular battle to fight - at the very least until November.
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