Israel bets on both Democrats, Republicans after US elections

Although the elections are primarily about domestic issues, their effect on foreign affairs should not be dismissed altogether.
Sunday 11/11/2018
A file picture shows Israel’s Deputy Cabinet Minister for Public Diplomacy Michael Oren. (AFP)
Positive spin. A file picture shows Israel’s Deputy Cabinet Minister for Public Diplomacy Michael Oren. (AFP)

LONDON - Israel is trying to adjust to the new political climate in the United States and even look for new opportunities after the midterm elections in which the Democrats gained a majority in the US House of Representatives.

Michael Oren, the Israeli deputy cabinet minister for public diplomacy, said Israel viewed the Democratic Party win as an opportunity for Tel Aviv to reach out to Democrats and liberal Jews.

Democrats, like their Republican rivals, have traditionally supported the state of Israel but the vocal backing that the right-wing Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu has given to US President Donald Trump left many in the Democratic Party — including liberal Jews — feeling betrayed.

Oren, who previously served as an ambassador to Washington, said Israel would still push for a hawkish US stance towards the Palestinians and Iran while Trump is in the White House. Oren said Trump was likely to turn to international diplomacy in dealing with the Middle East peace process, which is important to all politicians.

“There is no issue which would have greater reverberations, not just on the right but in the centre and maybe even on parts of the left than resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Oren told the Associated Press (AP).

Observers are divided on the effects of the US midterm election on Trump’s Middle East policies. Mouin Rabbani, a Palestinian analyst, told the AP that he expected little change of direction.

Others said that, although the elections are primarily about domestic issues, their effect on foreign affairs should not be dismissed altogether.

“Despite everything that’s going on with Israel and the Palestinians — it’s an election, it’s a race that’s all about domestic issues and all about President Trump,” said Haaretz correspondent Allison Kaplan Sommer.

“But the fact that the House races are mostly about domestic policies doesn’t mean that their tone and outcome won’t be really important for the future of US-Israel relations and that American Jews and Israelis aren’t paying close attention to them.”

Some went further. “The Biggest Loser of the US Midterms? Binyamin Netanyahu,” was the headline on a Haaretz column by Samuel G. Freedman, the author of “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”

“In tethering Israel to just one political party and one ideology in an America that is profoundly split between two, the [Israeli] prime minister has evidently never allowed for the turn of events indicated by the midterms: the realistic prospect that the political majority will swing back to Democrats and that the evangelical right will be outvoted by a burgeoning movement of multicultural progressives, including the vast majority of American Jews,” wrote Freedman.

Eytan Gilboa, the director of the Centre for International Communication and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, predicted that a Democratic win would harm US-Israel ties.

“Israel support among Democrats has plummeted over the past decade, which is evident in public opinion polls, the party’s platform and the positions of some of its veteran representatives as well as of those who might join them in the coming election,” Gilboa wrote in before the elections.

“Just as Iran hopes for a Democratic victory, Israel wishes for a Republican win, which will allow Trump to continue his pressure on Iran and his pro-Israel moves and so, the midterm elections’ results could have a significant impact on Israel’s security and welfare.”

Any change of course is unlikely to be immediate. While the Democrats may disrupt some of Trump’s Middle East policies by keeping him preoccupied with domestic investigations, the party is unable to direct US foreign policy as long as it remains outside the White House. In addition, the US Senate is controlled by the Republicans.

“Democrats were infuriated by Trump’s withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran that Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration reached in 2015 but there is little they can do to change the policy as long as Republicans occupy the White House,” reported Reuters.

What the Democrats could do, however, is additional oversight of Trump’s foreign policy.

“From January to November 2018, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had just 14 full committee hearings not related to nominations, allowing the administration to overhaul US foreign policy without the need to explain itself in public,” wrote Brian McKeon and Caroline Tess in Foreign Affairs

“Their (Democrats’) first step should be returning to standard practice for oversight, a core function of the congressional committees. That means hearings, and lots of them.”