In America, the recent victory of republican Scott Brown in the special Senate election was, to say the least, big news. The switch of the Massachusetts senate seat from democrat to republican gave the democrats a 59 to 41 majority – significant yes, but one less than the filibuster proof 60-40 majority it once enjoyed. The special election was portrayed as a referendum on Obama’s first year in office and many have said the republican victory makes Obama weaker. This is certainly true in domestic policies – health care particularly – but will it make a difference in Obama’s foreign policy in thee Middle East? Laura Rozen of Politico says yes.
Obama’s first year’s recap of the Middle East shows a stunning failure in the Israel–Palestine peace talks thanks to Obama’s crippling inability to push Israel to make real concessions for peace. Brown’s victory means that Obama will have to become more of a populist president at home – job creation – and a more risk averse president abroad. This is particularly important in the Middle East because of the close ties between the Israeli lobby – AIPAC in particular – and the republican party. Logically, if Obama was not able to effectively pressure Israel to make concessions in 2009, he will be even more troubled to do so in 2010.
Rozen reports Aaron David Miller – of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars – as saying, “What really counts is the perception among friends and adversaries of whether or not he can deliver.” Miller’s point strikes at the heart of the American-Israeli relationship. Last year, Obama demanded a complete settlement freeze, but had to back off because Netanyahu stood up to him. If Israel sees Obama as further weakened by the events of the past week, Netanyahu will be sure to be more defiant. From Haaretz, Aluf Benn argues (again via Rozen):
Obama’s loss is Netanyahu’s gain,” argued Aluf Benn of Israeli daily Haaretz, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “For nine months, Netanyahu held his ground against pressure by Obama. … From now on, Obama will be much more dependent on support from his Republican adversaries, who are supporters and friends of Netanyahu.
According to the Israeli press, there was gloating in Israel’s right-wing government yesterday, when Time Magazine published President Barack Obama’s words of frustration with his administration’s inability to elicit bold action toward peace from the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians.
Theoretically, the democrat”s loss in the Senate should not make much of a difference in Obama’s foreign policy – his team has said as much. However, Obama’s domestic agenda has suffered a defeat, a defeat that may force Obama to scale back on his ambitious foreign policy to avoid failures and to avoid upsetting his domestic allies. Furthermore, as Miller writes, the perception of Obama’s ability to pressure foreign governments is perhaps more important than his actual ability to do so. If foreign leaders see Obama as now lacking the ability (compared to the will) to truly push for what he wants, it will have dire consequences for the hopes for peace in the Middle East.