This Congress Won’t Give Obama a Free Pass on Israel

The new Congress can be expected to be openly supportive of Israel. That means that if the president were to resume his tactic of pressuring Israel he will find himself in opposition to many in the Congress.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on November 16, 2010.)

The very substantial electoral defeat of the Democrats in the recent congressional elections was a defeat for the president, Barack Obama. The voters were angry and gave vent to their anger by voting Republican, in some cases even when the local candidate was a “Tea Party” candidate whose prescription for dealing with the economic crisis was not always sensible.

The Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives and significantly reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate. What was America angry about? Primarily at the level of unemployment that is more than 10 percent, with no indication that it is on the way down. And Americans are scared by the large budget deficit and mounting federal debt.

Obama may now realize that if he made one mistake in his first two years in office, it was the national health plan. Paradoxically enough, when he succeeded in passing the plan through Congress, it was considered an unprecedented achievement after other presidents had tried and failed, the fulfillment of a promise he had made during the elections. And indeed, the plan makes for a substantial improvement in health care for many Americans.

In recent polls 50 percent of Americans still favored the Obama health plan, but the problem was in the timing. At a time of great economic crisis, a plan that is likely to increase the deficit or else involve an increase in taxation, or maybe even both, seems to most like the wrong kind of medicine to apply to an ailing economy at this time.

Israelis, who have pretty good health insurance and generally enjoy excellent health care, are not particularly concerned with Obama’s health reform, but do want to know how the recent elections are going to affect Israel. Is there going to be a change for the better? Or a change for worse? Or maybe the elections are not going to make any difference as far as Israel is concerned.

As a matter of fact, Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship played no role in the elections. Foreign policy was not even mentioned during the political campaign throughout the country. It was all about economics. Does that mean that Obama can be expected to pursue his policy toward Israel, whether we like it or not, unperturbed? That one should expect no change even though the composition of the Congress has changed radically?

As is well known, in the United States foreign policy is determined by the president. He decides and he and his secretary of state execute. Only when foreign policy decisions require budgetary allocations is the president dependent on congressional approval. At first sight it looks like there is hardly any room for the Congress to interfere or influence when it comes to foreign policy. However, there is more here than meets the eye. First of all, the new Congress is very friendly to Israel. Not that friendship, and even admiration, for Israel is limited to the Republican party – that sentiment is bipartisan and includes Democrats and Republicans alike. However, many Democrats in Congress who did not agree with the pressure that the president applied to Israel in the past two years have hesitated to voice criticism of the president’s policy out of loyalty to the leader of their party.

Republicans in the new Congress will feel no such compunction. They will let the president and the country know when they disagree with him. The new Congress can be expected to be openly supportive of Israel. That means that if the president were to resume his tactic of pressuring Israel he will find himself in opposition to many in the Congress. With many other urgent items on his agenda he may not want to get into a collision with Congress on this issue. If he were to consider taking punitive measures against Israel, if he finds the Israeli government recalcitrant, he will find it difficult to get the cooperation of Congress in the areas where this is required.

It is therefore unlikely that we will see a repeat of the crises between the U.S. and Israel, real and artificial, that we witnessed in the past two years. The Israeli prime minister will not again be insulted on his visits to Washington. There’ll be some changes. This Congress will not give the president a free pass on Israel.

Translate »