US midterm elections offer little hope for peace process

Yassin Gaber, Monday 1 Nov 2010

Kicked off with much bravado in September, the Middle East peace talks sponsored by US President Obama have ground to a halt as both Palestinian and Israeli delegations await the results of the US midterm elections.

With the onset of the US midterm elections, on November 2nd, Palestinians are now hoping that President Barak Obama’s softer approach to Israel is tied to the president’s need to focus on domestic politics ahead of the vote and that afterwards he might be freer to refocus on his foreign agenda.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in September by US President Barak Obama had disintegrated when an Israeli moratorium on settlement building expired on 26 September. The US failed to coax Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu into extending the settlement freeze and as a result, Palestinian negotiators, after convening with the Arab League, effectively suspended the fledgling talks.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath believes “that if President Obama emerges strong from this election, then this will enable him to work more on foreign policy [while] if he and his party lose in the elections, the this will limit his ability to pressure and actively engage in foreign policy.”

It is unlikely, however, that Obama will emerge strong from these elections. With mounting pressure at home, the US president’s role in the Middle East conflict seems a non-issue with most of his electorate focusing on the still struggling economy and the high unemployment levels running near 10 per cent.

The Congressional midterm elections will most likely see Democrats lose their majority in the House of Representatives and cede significant ground in the Senate. As a result, Obama is expected to emerge from Tuesday’s elections weakened and with his mandate shaken at best.

Palestinians fear a weakened Obama will not be able to apply the necessary pressure to Israel and obtain key concessions from Netanyahu regarding settlements in the West Bank which thus far have stalled negotiations.

Speaking to Reuters, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian president's negotiating team, asserted that “If Obama comes out of the election considerably weaker, then Netanyahu will use this new balance to try to get everything he wants.” "Netanyahu is not negotiating with us. He is negotiating with the Americans," he added.

David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Canadian Press that banking on the idea that a Republican majority might put a “profound constraint” on Obama’s ability to wrench concessions from Israel could backfire. “It’s possible that the net effect of his losing the ability to pass domestic legislation might make him a 100 per cent foreign policy president.”

If on 3 November, Obama wakes up with his domestic arm paralysed, he might indeed refocus on foreign affairs and use his last two years in office to cement his name in history by securing an end to this decades-old conflict. After all, former president Jimmy Carter, having sacrificed quite a bit on his home front, was able to secure peace between Israel and Egypt, setting a precedent for Middle East talks.

Thus far, the general Arab sentiment is that Obama’s track record in the Middle East does not bode well vis-à-vis his ability to truly challenge the post-Bush landscape of the region. Arab observers see the president’s seemingly rushed withdrawal from Iraq as a move very much in line with his predecessor’s cut and run policy outlined in 2008.

Furthermore, another report by Makovsky indicates that the US president's gestures aimed at reviving the peace process were in fact discouraging. According to the 29 September report, Obama sent a letter to Netanyahu in which he allegedly promised the Israeli prime minister unconditional support in the UN Security Council and further military equipment in return for a two month extension of the freeze – strategically timed to end after the midterm elections.

Another crucial concession proffered by Obama would have seen at least a third of the future Palestinian state under extended Israeli military occupation. The West Bank region in question is known as the Jordan Valley or “Area C” as referred to in the Oslo Accords. The Jordan Valley which has been under the jurisdiction of the Israeli army since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords is a fertile region with water resources vital to both sides. Obama’s willingness to indefinitely extend Israel’s control of this region clearly indicates his reluctance to pursue an end to Israeli colonisation.

Whatever the results of the midterm elections, it is hard to envision a policy more in line with Israeli interests.

Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi's take is no less bleak. She told AFP that Obama had already been so soft on Israel that it was difficult to imagine elections making a significant difference.

"It's going to be very difficult to see how the US administration can back off even more than it has so far," she said.

"It's going to be very difficult to see any administration that is going to be so conciliatory and willing to accept all Israeli positions the way they have done so far."

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