Thursday, May 17, 2012

Obama, Romney and Israel

Obama, Romney and Israel

Abraham Ben-Zvi

At this stage of the race to the White House, the close battle between President Barack Obama and candidate Mitt Romney is far from clear cut. The president's approval rating stands at 48 percent, reflecting his fragile position. Since the end of World War II, only two presidents (Harry Truman in 1948 and George W. Bush in 2004) have succeeded in winning a second term in office when their approval rating in May was less than 50%.

Considering how tight the current race is, we must carefully evaluate Obama's and Romney's future conduct as it relates to the Middle East. We should free ourselves from apocalyptic myths about Obama: While many believe his re-election would restore American pressure on Israel, an alternate scenario could also be possible.

Let's keep in mind that even if the American public does renew Obama's mandate, he will likely face an oppositional House of Representatives with a Republican majority. The chances of a Democratic victory in that house of Congress are slim. There is also a chance that Obama will lose the insubstantial Democrat majority (53 to 47) he enjoys in the Senate. If this plays out, the White House could find itself restrained by both houses on Capitol Hill, which would limit its maneuverability with regard to Israel. (This happened during previous crises between the U.S. and Israel, like in the 1975 dispute over Israel's presence in the Sinai Peninsula that prompted the U.S. to "re-evaluate" the special relationship it maintained with its ally). Moreover, there are doubts about Obama's desire to devote great efforts to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during a second term.

In contrast to former President Jimmy Carter, Obama's involvement in the region never stemmed from a deep ideological commitment; his approach has always been cold and calculated – and it focused on the hope that advancing a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians would serve as a launching pad for forging a moderate Sunni bloc that, with U.S. backing, could curb the regional threat posed by Iran. The serious pressure the Obama administration initially applied to Israel, which soured the president's relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, must be viewed in this larger context. However, the wave of revolutions that washed over the Middle East last year turned the inter-Arab front on its head – and ended the effort to link the Palestinian issue to the administration's strategic goals, especially in the Gulf.

It is highly unlikely that in the next two years Obama will choose to focus on the loaded, and weighty, Israeli-Palestinian issue, which is now disconnected from the broader regional context. Therefore, it's safe to assume that Obama will, at most, work to advance an interim agreement between the parties or resolve some of the core issues that would cement his place in history.

As opposed to Obama, whose initial focus on the Palestinian issue was driven by his obligation to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq (and to find a replacement in the inter-Arab coalition), Romney is firmly anchored in the domestic arena. In light of the fact that the Republican candidate has been presented to the public as a skilled manager, capable of creating a strong economy, it is hard to imagine him being overly zealous on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Therefore, there is diminished potential for conflict between his administration and Israel.

Moreover, previous Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan and the younger Bush) held views on security that fostered the strategic U.S. partnership with Israel, and Romney's position continues that line of thinking. The need to preserve the U.S.'s strength, prestige and position is part of the Republican tradition – and seemingly ensures that Romney will adopt an aggressive posture regarding Iran and other security threats. It is also safe to assume that Romney will distance the U.S. from multilateral initiatives, in which Obama initially preferred to take part.

Despite these considerations and despite the fact that Romney's overwhelming declarations of support for Israel reflect both his present needs and his identification with the "special relationship" between the two countries, he is still a pragmatist. That said, it would be wise to remember a lesson from the days of President Reagan: Despite his personal support for Israel, he didn't hesitate to condemn it, both in 1981 (when it bombed the nuclear reactor in Iraq) and during the First Lebanon War.