Lara Friedman
Haaretz (Opinion)
November 5, 2010 - 12:00am

The bottom line of this week's midterm Congressional elections: The House of Representatives is now in the hands of the Republicans, while the Democrats still control the Senate, albeit by a smaller majority.

What does this election mean for American efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace? The conventional answer is: Buckle your seat belts - we're in for a bumpy ride. The more serious answer is: It depends mainly on President Obama.

First, there is some truth in the conventional wisdom. Many members of Congress - mainly, but not exclusively, Republicans - have come to view Israel as a handy blunt instrument, ideal for bludgeoning fellow legislators and the White House in order to score political points. This has been true in the past, but it is an even more prevalent phenomenon today. The cynical effort to use Israel as a rallying cry in several races in this election cycle - most notably in Pennsylvania and Illinois - only underscores this ugly reality.

Moreover, the switch in control of the House will mean some significant personnel changes. These include the rise to even greater influence of Eric Cantor (R-VA ). Cantor, who will likely be in a leadership position in the new Congress, is overtly partisan and hard-line on anything related to Israel and the Middle East.

Another likely change is the ascension of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL ) to the chairwomanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. If past actions are any indicator, Ros-Lehtinen will exploit the committee as a forum for far right-wing voices. She will likely also introduce and move anti-peace legislation - bills that will undermine America as an honest broker or seek to limit U.S. diplomats' room for maneuver.

For these and other reasons - including the presence of a new "nutty" factor in the form of the Tea Partyers - it is safe to predict that the next Congress will have no shortage of members, from both parties, trying to outdo each other with statements and legislative initiatives designed to demonstrate "pro-Israel" bona fides. Thoughtful discussion of what is actually good for Israel will be pushed to the sidelines.

But here is where the conventional wisdom hits a wall, because it is the president, not Congress, who is in charge of conducting U.S. foreign policy. Congress can try to obstruct him - by refusing to fund his priorities or by passing legislation intended to limit his options - and such efforts cannot be discounted. Groups like Americans for Peace Now and J Street will continue to fight them tooth and nail. But ultimately, foreign policy belongs to the president. And this president has a decision to make.

When Obama took office, he articulated a clear commitment to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regrettably, his efforts faced vigorous pushback. His strategy of trying to convince and cajole the parties into cooperating proved inadequate to the task. As a result, today a credibility problem plagues Obama's peace efforts: Each of the stakeholders - Israel, the Palestinians, key Arab leaders - doubts the seriousness of Obama's commitment and doubts his ability to convince the other parties to deliver. It is thus no surprise that none are willing to expend their own political capital.

If President Obama is ready to back his commitment to Middle East peace with the kind of real investment necessary to make the parties play ball, though, a breakthrough is still possible, regardless of any pushback from Congress.

This is not fantasy. President Clinton in the 1990s led a serious Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, and did so despite repeated attempts by Congress to undermine him. And a viable agreement is indeed possible today: Real U.S. leadership that reflects both U.S. national interests and the best interests of both Israel and the Palestinians can be a game-changer.

But Obama's aspirations can be realized only when the parties know that he means business, that there will be meaningful consequences if they refuse to pursue the goals he has laid out, or if they continue to postpone critical decisions.

Which brings us back to Tuesday's election and the real question, which is: Will Obama now buy into the old adage that electorally, pursuing Middle East peace is a losing bet? He shouldn't. Cynics and political opportunists, inside and outside of Congress, will continue to attack his Middle East policies. If he is resolutely working to achieve peace, they will bash him for being too tough on Israel. If he pulls back in his efforts, they will bash him for having failed and for ever having been tough on Israel. Given this reality, Obama's best strategy is to double down on his Middle East peace efforts. And make no mistake: Cantor, Ros-Lehtinen and their ilk notwithstanding, most members of Congress want to help Israel make peace, and most will stand with their president when they believe he means business. That is why supporters of peace, like Americans for Peace Now, will spare no effort in countering anti-peace efforts in Congress. And that is why we and all those who care about Israel must spare no effort in pressing President Obama to play to win.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017