News Analysis: New US Congress affects Obama's Middle East policy

08:20, November 04, 2010      

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Early results of the U.S. midterm elections indicate President Barack Obama's Democrats have lost control of the House of Representatives and the Republican Party has increased its presence in the Senate, which may affect Obama's role as a peace broker in the Middle East.

When Obama convinced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year to impose a ten-month freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank so that the peace process could be resumed, hopes were high that it could lead to a breakthrough.

However, the optimism quickly faded. Talks only resumed in August this year, one month before the freeze was about to end. After the moratorium expired in September, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected further talks without an extension, which Netanyahu has so far refused to grant.

Following the end of the building halt, there were numerous media reports of offers and demands from Obama to Netanyahu in order to get the talks back on track. But so far no results have been seen.

According to analysts that spoke to Xinhua, Obama will now face limitations on his movement regarding the Middle East because a Republican Congress will be less supportive of his efforts than the previous Democratic one.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow of the Washington-based non- partisan think-tank the American Task Force on Palestine, believes that while the elections might affect U.S. policy, it's still too early to tell what the exact changes in policy will be.

"The election results are unlikely to have a major impact on the broad outlines of the U.S. policy, since that really is the purview of the administration and not the Congress," Ibish said. " But the fallout could cause more subtle shifts in the balance of power within administration ranks," he added.

Ibish also said that it is too early to tell what factions will benefit, but the overall thrust of the policy is likely to remain consistent whatever, as Obama is still responsible for the general direction.

Obama has generally been viewed in the Middle East as a more impartial president than his predecessor George W. Bush, who was perceived as pro-Israeli.

To improve the tarnished standing of the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim world, one of Obama's first steps was to give a major foreign policy speech in Cairo in June 2009, during which he talked about the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim world.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said that the outcome of the election would hurt Obama's efforts in the short term but "President Obama has taken this very difficult issue on from the outset for the long term. I think there will be a determination to continue," he added.

"There is a calculus beginning to be made as to how strong or weak he will come out and how that will affect his ability to press the parties, especially the Israelis," Shaikh said when asked how the election outcome may affect the Middle East.

He also pointed out that Obama still has another two to six years left in his presidency, depending on whether or not he will be reelected in 2012, which would give him plenty of time to continue his efforts to reach an agreement.

Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv, also told Xinhua that the consequence of the Republican win is still undetermined.

As the foreign policy is set by the president, it's not that easy for Congress to exert influence, Teitelbaum said, adding that the new situation "may even give Obama a freer hand."

"It depends on how he sees his chances of being re-elected. If he comes to the conclusion that he does not have a chance to get re-elected anyway, he may think: so I have two years left and I'm going to push forward the Middle East peace process in any way I can," Teitelbaum said.

However, Obama might also conclude that if he won't win two years later, he will need to change his policy to follow the political leanings of the country towards a more Republican position, he said.

This may result in taking a more pro-Israeli stand in line with Republicans thinking and thereby reducing Obama's willingness to press Israel into making any concessions, he added.

After peace talks ended in September, Obama has been trying to press Israel to extend its settlement construction freeze in exchange for U.S. support of Israeli demands in future negotiations.

Netanyahu has so far not replied to the American offer and there are widespread speculation that he has been waiting for the outcome of the midterm elections, hoping that a weaker Obama would make him a better offer.

This feeling was not lost on the Palestinian side. Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization' s Executive Committee told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that while the Palestinians were unmoved by the election, its results clearly show that Israel is not interested in the peace process.

Abed Rabbo told the daily "these results prove that Israel played a role in these elections and cooperated with U.S. elements in order to use the results to thwart the negotiations. More than anything, this testifies to the Israeli government's intention in regard to the peace process."

Source: Xinhua

(Editor:张茜)

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