Would another Obama term be better for Israel/Palestine than Romney?

The answer: Not necessarily.

In a side note to my post on Newt Gingrich yesterday, I wrote that as far as the Israeli-Palestinian issue is concerned, I don’t see a big difference between a second Obama term and a Romney presidency. This remark got more attention than my comments on Gingrich, which were at the center of the post, so I’d like to elaborate on them a bit.

If I were an American citizen, I would probably vote for Barack Obama in 2012, mainly due to his positions on domestic issues. While far from being perfect – especially on personal freedoms – Obama is way better than Republican alternatives on abortion, healthcare, gay rights and more – at least as far as I can tell from afar. Plus, future nominations to the Supreme Court alone provide a good reason to prefer him. The sad reality of the two-party system is that the liberal base has very little bargaining power against an incumbent president.

Still, I am not American, and this blog deals mainly with local politics. On that front, Barack Obama wasn’t able to produce better results than George W. Bush. In fact, if you deal only with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he might have actually been worse. I say “might,” because Bush had to deal with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Barack Obama with Netanyahu, so it’s very hard to compare the two.

President Obama made at least one critical mistake – the appointment of Dennis Ross as special envoy – and many tactical ones, ending up with the worst of all scenarios: he is perceived as anti-Israeli and pays the political price for it, while in fact his policies are more comfortable for the Israeli right than those of any other president before him. The administration has lost all leverage on Israel, even on consensus issues like opposition to the settlements. Things have gotten so bad, that many fear Israel will soon start settling the E1 area northeast of Jerusalem, a move that was successfully blocked by the Bush administration, while a witch-hunt is carried out in Washington against anyone who dares mutter a feeble condemnation of Jerusalem’s right-wing policies.

For years, the common wisdom in Israeli politics was that a prime minister cannot survive a confrontation with an American president. The Obama White House has handled relations with Netanyahu so poorly that Bibi actually gets a bump in the polls every time he comes back from the States, with the biggest one coming after the historical lecture he gave the president during a photo-op in the White House.

One could say that Obama had no real alternatives, and that in the current political game, applying pressure on Jerusalem costs too much political credit, while the chances of scoring points are very slim. Still, this argument only strengthens my point – that from a local perspective, a “moderate” Republican and a Democrat are pretty much the same.

But will Romney himself be better than Obama? Probably not. What could change is the political dynamic in Washington. Progressives and Democrats in general may find it easier to attack a Republican president from the left than it is to deal with a Democrat with a right-wing (foreign) policy. We should also note the fact that Romney is careful not to box himself in statements on Israel that would limit him later, such as the promise other Republican candidates have made to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Curiously enough, among the people surrounding Romney, one name will be familiar to Israelis: that of Dov Zakheim, the former governor’s Special Adviser on Foreign Policy. Zakheim, an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist, became extremely unpopular in Israel in the 1980s due to his involvement in the termination of the IAI Lavi Project. He probably still remembers the smear campaign the Israeli right, led by then Defense Minister Moshe Arens, launched against him.

Should all that be a reason to prefer Romney over Obama? It depends on what guides one’s vote. I tend to like Obama. My point was that based on past behavior, there is no reason to think that he would be much better than Romney. In both cases, one could assume that the United States will continue to pay lip service to peace while in practice supporting the Israeli occupation with money, arms and the diplomatic cover it provides. If we learned something from the Obama presidency, it’s that these trends can be challenged in one of two ways: either by changing the American conversation on Israel and Palestine to a more fact-based and realistic one, or by diminishing American influence in the Middle East altogether.

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