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Part II: US elections and the future of Arab-Israeli relations

Palestinian issue remains in the balance as Middle East awaits outcome of US presidential elections, starting Tuesday, which will shape American foreign policy in the region

Bassem Aly, Monday 5 Nov 2012
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver. (Photo: AP)
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Americans will head to the polling stations, Tuesday, to choose their new president from between the incumbent president democrat Barack Obama and his republican rival Mitt Romney.

Arabs are following closely: the outcome of the elections will have a significant impact on the direction of US foreign policy and consequently on status of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

American international policies have been a key subject in the televised presidential debates. On 22 October, Obama criticised Romney for implementing the foreign policy of the "1980s", adding that he has "wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map."

Romney's response was to blame troubles in the Middle East and other international challenges the US faces on Obama's lack of guidance.  

Obama's early promises to the region

Soon after he was elected four years ago, Obama delivered a speech at Cairo University in Egypt's capital, during which he declared his support for a two-state solution and the freezing of all Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

For six months, Obama then persuaded the Israelis to take these steps and attempted to pave the way for American-brokered Palestinian-Israeli talks.

However, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of the Palestinian right to return, the continuation of settlement building and the gradual waning of US calls for a peaceful resolution to the 64-year-old crisis, resulted in negotiations grinding to a halt.

In addition, on several occasions Obama called Israel America's "closest" and "most important ally in the region," a viewpoint also frequently put forward by his rival Romney.  

Obama's preoccupation with the American financial crisis was a key reason behind his failure to fulfil his commitment to the Palestinians, Mohamed El-Ississ, Economics professor at the American University of Egypt (AUC) points out.

“There has been little US attention to the Palestinian question recently," Magda Shahin, former Egyptian assistant minister of foreign affairs for international economics, tells Ahram Online. "Iran embodies the toughest challenge in 2012. Netanyahu was clever enough to change the focus of Washington."

US, Israel, Iran and the Zionist lobby

Whether or not there proves to be any US-Israeli disagreements on Iran in the future, director of the AUC Forum and International Relations Professor Bahgat Korany tells Ahram Online, there can be no doubt that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would feel more comfortable dealing with a Republican Romney.  

Korany says it was telling that Obama chose to visit three Muslim countries, Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt and postpone his visit to Israel, during his early days in office, a point that Romney picked up on during the second televised presidential debate last month.

This said strong pro-Israel lobbies such as American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street, Korany adds, have a significant influence over the US political system and continue to pressurise the US administration, Congress and other state institutions steering American foreign policy in the region.

"Although AIPAC and J Street do sometimes present conflicting views about regional issues, their very existence gives an incorrect impression to the Americans that Israel cares about their views more than the Arabs do," Korany adds.  

El-Issis agrees. "The president is obliged to respond to pressures from Congress, the media, and interest groups. This situation makes the process of decision-making much harder for the White House”, El-Ississ explains.

Some democrats have accused Netanyahu of interfering in the US elections by trying to coerce Obama into setting "red lines" regarding Iran's nuclear program and into staging a military attack on the Islamic country. Nevertheless, Obama has consistently recommended that the issue of Iran be approached diplomatically.

Romney took advantage of his rival's middle ground approach by calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel during a visit to the self-proclaimed Jewish state. He was even thanked by Netanyahu for adopting an anti-Palestinian position.

This has had a significant effect on attitudes of the Israeli Jewish population to both candidates.

Republican support in Israel

According to a "Peace Index" poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, published Sunday by Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli Jewish population prefer Romney to Obama by a 3:1 margin.

In his two terms as Israel's prime minister, Netanyahu has only ever dealt with democrat presidents, first Bill Clinton and now Obama.

However, the Israeli premier's relations with the incumbent US president were at best frosty and he is often quoted as having said "I speak Republican."

Therefore the biggest difference between Obama and Romney in terms of their foreign policy, ex-minister Shahin affirms, is that the former is more popular within the Arab world, particularly as Romney lost all support after his recent to Israel.

If Romney is elected, "he will not be welcomed," Shahin adds.

Some argue America's approach to the Middle East will stay the same, whoever wins.

“Regardless of the winning candidate, we have to understand that the US position towards Israel will not change," Korany says. "The Israeli lobbies can strongly influence US foreign attitude, while the Arab voice remains weak in Washington."

In addition, Romney has not added "unprecedented dimensions to US foreign policy, he just speaks like former president George W. Bush and his neo-conservative administration," Korany asserts.

International public opinion aside, when you look in detail at Obama's and Romney's foreign agendas, Korany concludes, "you find similar ideas communicated in a different language."

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