It wouldn’t be a huge leap to assume that Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish prime minister of Israel, is rejoicing at the large Republican gains in the midterm elections this week. Netanyahu considers Congress his domain in Washington, the place he goes to for protection when the White House presses him to take steps he’d rather avoid. Though plenty of Democratic members of Congress are friendly to Israel, Republicans are more likely to support a Likud government uncritically. And since Obama has shown a greater willingness to lean on Israel than other recent American presidents, a weaker man in the White House should ostensibly mean less pressure on the prime minister in Jerusalem.
But Netanyahu may find the consequences of the midterm election to be more of a mixed bag. For one thing, experience has shown that the composition of Congress does not necessarily determine Washington’s approach to the Middle East. The most relevant example would be President Clinton’s dealings with Israel during his second term. Though Republicans had a majority in both the House and the Senate, Clinton managed to force a recalcitrant Israeli leader into withdrawing from parts of the West Bank under an interim deal with the Palestinians. That leader’s name: Benjamin Netanyahu. “Yes, a Republican Congress will raise the domestic political cost of confronting Israel,” says Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on Israel-U.S. relations at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “But there are plenty of ways to pressure Israel without Congress.”
In fact, in some ways Obama might now be more inclined to confront Israel. The Republican House majority could well narrow his scope for major domestic achievements, making him hungrier for foreign-policy successes. There’s no bigger one than advancing peace in the Middle East.
Then there’s the matter of Iran. Israelis view the coming year as critical in the campaign to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. Republican congressmen might be more amenable to the idea of considering military options in case sanctions don’t work. On the Sunday talk shows and on the floor of the House of Representatives, the idea of attacking Iran’s nuclear installations will be floated more often.
But policy on Iran is led by the White House, not by Congress. And it’s hard to imagine Obama being influenced by a bevy of rookie lawmakers when his defense secretary, the chairman of the joint chiefs of the staff, and top intelligence officials have all gone on record warning about the consequences of military action against Iran.
The results of the election could have more of an effect in Tehran itself—and this should be Israel’s main concern. President Ahmadinejad and other hardliners are surely feeling emboldened by the perception that Obama is now a weaker president. That perception will likely make it harder for Washington to compel Iran to stop its enrichment program.
The bottom line: U.S. policy won’t change much as far as Israel is concerned. Netanyahu might be toasting the results of the election now. But when the dust clears, he can expect renewed pressure to resume the settlement freeze in the West Bank and get serious in talks with the Palestinians.