Israel is — once again — a hot issue in presidential politics, at least in the narrow confines of the Jewish community, but U.S. policy in the region is unlikely to change dramatically no matter what the Nov. 6 outcome. And what changes do occur will be shaped by broader U.S. interests — foreign and domestic — and by an unprecedented environment of upheaval in the region, not by the pro-Israel rhetoric both parties now regard as politically mandatory on the campaign trail.
What may change, though, are the atmospherics of the alliance. There’s little doubt that the personal chill between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will persist during a second term for the president — and a possible third for the Israeli leader. A Mitt Romney presidency would likely produce a warmer personal relationship between the two leaders, although a dramatic change in policy is unlikely.
A host of factors will keep U.S. policy in the region on the same track no matter who wins next month. They include: ongoing economic anxieties at home; a climate unfavorable to peacemaking in the Middle East; deepening turmoil across the Arab world; and new foreign policy challenges around the globe.
The real news could be that the Arab-Israeli conflict is already being relegated to the second tier of U.S. foreign policy, which is where it is likely to stay for the next administration — regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
Jews on the political right are certain that, if Obama is re-elected, his second Obama administration will initiate a new squeeze on Jerusalem as the lame-duck president tries to do what political factors made impossible in his first term: push Israel to make dramatic concessions to the Palestinians.
Don’t bet on it.
The climate in the region is more inhospitable than ever for would-be peacemakers. Israeli and Palestinian leaders remain interested only in blaming each other for the deepening stalemate, not in taking steps to end it. Palestinians in the West Bank are more prosperous, and Israelis are less threatened by everyday terror; leaders on both sides feel little pressure from their constituents to re-engage in peace talks. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank feel more threatened by Hamas in Gaza than by Jewish settlers. In Israel, Iran is the only international issue on the national radar.
It is true that as a lame duck, Obama’s own political fortunes will be impervious to the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby. But the policies he pursues will affect a Democratic Party already under attack as “soft” on Israel, and he will face strong internal pressure not to stir that particular pot, especially since the chances any new U.S. initiative in the region might succeed are slim to nonexistent.
And with the Arab world in ferment, U.S. action on Israeli-Palestinian peace is no longer an overarching priority for our allies in Europe and across the Middle East.
Ten years ago, U.S. credibility across the region seemed to hinge on its willingness to press for a Palestinian state. Today, Middle East leaders have other things on their minds; much more important to them is how Washington responds to the complex realities unfolding in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya, the growing menace of Iran and the spread of Islamic extremism.
That doesn’t mean everything will be hunky dory along the U.S.-Israel axis.
It’s no secret that Obama and Netanyahu have a chilly personal relationship, and the temperature is likely to drop still further in the wake of Bibi’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election and his efforts to use political pressure here to force the Obama administration to set “red lines” on Iran; it was a move seen by some in the administration as an outrageously inappropriate attempt to set the conditions for a major new U.S. war.
Don’t be surprised to see a little dose of payback from Obama when Netanyahu runs for re-election in Israel in January.
But U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation is now a deeply entrenched part of U.S. defense and foreign policy. Both Obama and Netanyahu have strong political reasons for making sure their dislike for each other does not undermine the special relationship between their nations.
In the end, the atmospherics won’t make much difference, for the simple reason that bold new U.S. peace initiatives in this most unpromising climate will not seem worth the distraction from other priorities they would inevitably cause, or the political heartburn.
Obama may choose to improve the atmosphere with a trip to Israel early in a second term. But with hopes for Middle East progress the dimmest of memories and the Israel-Palestinian question mostly off his to-do list, he may not see it as worth the bother.
In their staggeringly expensive ad blitz aimed at Jewish voters, the Republicans have suggested that the Obama administration has thrown Israel under the bus — a pitch intended mostly for the pro-Israel mega-givers like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson who are far to the right of most Jewish voters. Some conservative analysts have gleefully suggested Romney would essentially outsource U.S. Mideast policy to his old buddy (according to some accounts) Netanyahu.
But the moment he is sworn in, Romney will be hit in the face with a staggering array of foreign policy complexities that will prevent him from lurching off in new directions — if, indeed, that was ever his intent.
In fact, the GOP candidate is already shifting to a more traditional diplomatic posture. In a major foreign policy address earlier in the month, he committed himself to the two-state solution that some of his top Jewish supporters oppose and something he seemed to reject in the viral video of his off-the-record “47 percent” speech to a group of conservative big givers in Florida.
Obama came into office believing Middle East breakthroughs would be possible under this leadership, but quickly became disabused of that notion; Romney will undoubtedly start with a great deal more skepticism.
But he will not be able to ignore the issue entirely or tilt U.S. policy strongly in the direction of Netanyahu’s right-of-center ideology for the simple reason that he can’t afford to let the Israeli-Palestinian conflict blow up on his watch, at least not without affecting a host of other U.S. foreign policy priorities.
Romney and Obama started out with sharply different perspectives on Middle East peace, but events in the region and political and economic factors at home will bring them to more or less the same set of policies, with Obama forced to do less than he initially expected and Romney forced to do more.
Romney will continue to make noises about the need for an agreement creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but, like Obama after the president’s initial, disastrous foray, he will do next to nothing to turn those sentiments into reality. Facing the complex diplomatic realities of the issue, the former Massachusetts governor will quickly find ways to do what his predecessors did and waive the law requiring the State Department to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Yes, the personal relationship between Romney and Netanyahu, his onetime Boston Consulting Group colleague, is likely to be warmer — but not too warm, at least not if Romney doesn’t want to complicate other, more pressing U.S. foreign policy concerns. If Netanyahu tries to exploit a Romney victory by accelerating the pace of settlement construction, he could be in for some nasty surprises.
On Iran, Romney has repeatedly accused Obama — who has presided over the toughest-ever sanctions on Tehran — of being soft on the issue without revealing how he would respond differently to the threat.
That’s no surprise. Finding practical solutions to the threat posed by Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program that are consistent with a wide range of other vital U.S. interests, both foreign and domestic, is Byzantine in its complexity.
If he is elected, Romney will hear from U.S. defense experts the same thing Netanyahu is hearing from Israel’s: that anything other than a full-scale invasion is unlikely to end the Iranian nuclear threat. And he will hear that the kind of “limited” war advocated by some of his neoconservative supporters could jeopardize a host of U.S. interests without doing much more than delaying Iran’s weapons program by a year or two.
He will also be constrained by the staggering costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — a drain on U.S. resources for decades to come and a key factor in a federal deficit he has pledged to end — and by the shaky economy.
And he will have to quickly reassure the allies who have responded positively to Obama’s efforts to tighten the economic squeeze on Tehran but who are also strongly opposed to a new war in the region and worried about the “red lines” Netanyahu wants to impose on U.S. policy.
The reality is that he will likely pursue the very same policies he now deems insufficient, although probably with a sharper rhetorical edge at first: tightening sanctions, pressing allies for better enforcement and continuing to build international alliances to force the issue.
For all the GOP criticism of the Obama administration for looking at diplomatic options, a Romney administration will find itself doing the same thing. In a crisis with multiple bad options, U.S. leaders cannot afford to slam the door on any option that averts a war this nation can ill afford.
The same calculus holds true on Syria. Romney has not offered clearly stated alternatives to Obama’s widely criticized policy of inaction — and as president, he will find himself boxed in by the same constraints and the same fears of unintended consequences that have kept the United States out of the conflict so far.
U.S. aid to Israel is unlikely to be singled out for cuts by either a Romney or Obama administration. But pressure for huge cuts in federal spending could well produce across-the-board cuts to the foreign aid budget. No matter who wins next month, the next president would have a hard time carving out an exemption for a prosperous Israel.
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