by Richard Baehr
The Obama administration is facing long odds for the president's party to retain control of the U.S. Senate in the elections this Nov. 4. If the Republicans win control of the Senate to add to their House majority, foreign policy issues may become far more contentious in the next two years.
Two of the issues on which the two sides may bang heads concern Israel. The more pressing item concerns the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The current talks between the P5+1 and Iran have already been extended once, and if no deal is reached by Nov. 24, may be extended again. That would avoid an admission of defeat by an administration that has been loath to ever admit defeat about any policy or programmatic failure, of which there have been many.
On the other hand, there are also fears that in order to avoid another extension of the negotiations, the administration and its partners will humble themselves before the mullahs by offering much more of what the Iranians are demanding to close the deal. This would include concessions on the number of spinning centrifuges, inspections, weapons systems, and elimination or reduction of sanctions against the regime in the five weeks remaining before the deadline. This may still not be enough to avoid the Iranians pulling the rug out, since they have learned that delay never hurts them, so long as a few more concessions are pocketed while they agree to continue to talk. In other words, if the Iranians are unhappy with America's best offer today, they know it is not our final offer, and that the next offer after this one, which may come near the deadline of the next extension will probably be even better for them. But expect any extension to be accompanied by some sanctions relief and concessions on centrifuges by the P5+1.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration may feel the need for a deal this November, especially if it receives a stinging rebuke from voters in a few days, and wants to change the political momentum with a "victory" of some sorts. So there may be added incentive for it to get this done in the two months between the elections and the swearing in of the new Congress in January, which is likely to be less friendly.
This raises the issue of exactly what it is that gets done, if something is done. The administration, through its loyal mouthpiece, The New York Times, has made it clear that it will not sign a treaty with Iran, but rather a multiparty agreement. What this means is that the Senate will not get a shot at approving a "treaty," which requires two-thirds of those voting to pass, and the president will do what he chooses to do without the consent of the Senate. This will not go down well in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons has been a bipartisan concern among senators and House members for decades. It is one of the few such issues that attracts members from both parties.
However, when New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk attempted to strengthen the sanctions against Iran as a fallback if negotiations failed earlier in the year, the administration applied immense pressure on Senate Democrats, urging them to refuse to sign on, as a show of loyalty to the White House and trust in its efforts. The White House argued that Senate passage of the new sanctions bill would drive Iran away from the negotiations and increase the chances for war. The real history of the sanctions bills over the past few years is that only when they began to bite Iran hard enough, did that country show some serious interest in a deal. The other uncomfortable truth the White House and its supporters ignore or obfuscate is that they opposed toughened sanctions every step of the way and demanded waiver authority to relax them, something they intend to use.
Some critics of the administration have argued that the White House's attitude about sanctions is part of a broader policy shift to turning Iran from foe to friend, which includes adoption of a policy of containment rather than prevention in terms of an Iran with nuclear weapons. Treating Iran as an ally rather than pariah is far from the consensus view in Congress, but it is not at all rare among the foreign policy solons in Washington who think they know better and are more "realistic" than members of Congress, since they are freed from the chains of the supposedly all-powerful Israel lobby that columnist Tom Friedman has claimed has bought and sold the members of Congress.
The other lightning rod in the years ahead between the White House and Congress relating to Israel is likely to be Israeli settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. When talks fail, as they always do, only Israel is blamed. Now Secretary of State John Kerry, moving rapidly along the path from mediocrity to fool, is arguing that the rise of Islamic State is attributable in part to the failure to achieve a two-state solution as well as climate change.
The one thing that seems to have most enraged President Barack Obama, his staff, and the State Department, has been Israel building apartments for Jews in its capital city. These construction activities are always described as obstacles to peace, or at times, even making peace impossible. When the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party praises a terrorist who ran over a group of Israelis, killing an infant, the State Department calls for calm. The Fatah statement honoring a murderer (hardly the first time this has happened) is never described as an obstacle to peace. Nor does anyone at Foggy Bottom seem very annoyed that Iranians regularly insult Obama while he makes nice to them. On the other hand, Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon is persona non grata when he comes to Washington for talks, since he angered the administration by being openly critical of Kerry a few months back.
When some civilians used as human shields by Hamas were killed in the recent war in Gaza, this was also a source of bitter rebuke of Israel by the administration. But the apartment building has been a more constant problem for this team. Israel is a country where the birth rate is more than 50 percent higher than it is in any other developed country, with 176,000 births in the last 12 months, about three-quarters of them Jewish. One might think it makes sense that housing would be a priority for the government. But it is only Jews moving into existing apartments in Arab neighborhoods, or Israel building housing for Jews in areas beyond the Green Line, that gets official Washington unhinged, never Israel building housing for Arabs nor Arabs moving into Jewish neighborhoods. The State Department policy seems to be that what is theirs (Arabs') is theirs, and what is yours (Jews') can also be theirs.
Many Democrats in Congress are under increased pressure from Muslim and left-wing activists in their districts or states to become less supportive of Israel. So far, most have resisted, though their support for Israel lately has come more on easy stuff (foreign aid). If Obama seeks to join the United States up with the EU nations in blasting Israel over the failure to achieve peace, and over settlement activity, and completes the turn toward Iran, then some of these members will be tested in the next two years.
But if Republicans are in the majority come January in both the House and Senate, there will be a pushback against Obama as he tries to complete his turn away from Israel and its security concerns. Harry Reid, the Democratic senator from Nevada and current majority leader, worked to protect the president of his party when push came to shove over Iran sanctions, Israel be damned. Obama may just be getting started and his anti-Israel agenda may be much clearer over the next two years. If so, it would be good if Congress were in friendlier hands.
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