WASHINGTON (Nov. 3)
Having prevailed in a tight re-election contest, President Bush can forever put behind him questions about his mandate: He will use his clear majority of the popular vote and the increased Republican strength in both houses of Congress to effect dramatic change at home and abroad. Just don’t expect change in Israel.
The intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, coupled with Bush’s sincere sympathy for the Jewish state, suggests that the president will not use his second term to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon into peace talks with an unreformed Palestinian Authority.
“I don’t see any shift in Bush’s policy or his attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” said Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress and a friend of Bush.
Some Americans had feared — or hoped, depending on their political outlook — that a Bush freed of concerns about re-election would get tough on Israel.
“There were those in my community that would wink and say a second-term president who is free from pressure” would press Israel to stem settlement expansion, among other things, said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “But I don’t think this government did what it did for electoral reasons. It’s an ideological administration, and its ideology hasn’t changed.”
Bush’s black-and-white worldview makes a shift on Middle East policy unlikely, agreed David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
“He’s driven very much by his own moral code of what’s right and wrong, and that will determine his policy should he be re-elected,” Harris said.
“He has a strong sense of those nations that are friends and those nations that are foes, and that won’t change because of voting patterns on Nov. 2.”
Instead, look for bold shifts in domestic and social policy — and an even more assertive American posture abroad.
Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for local Jewish community relations councils, said the Republican retention of the White House and both houses of Congress creates dangers for the Jewish community.
“With the branches of government all appearing to be Republican, I think many of our domestic issues, how we fund programs, are in big trouble,” she said.
Congressional Republicans reportedly already are discussing more tax cuts, and Rosenthal said funding for Medicaid — a centerpiece of Jewish community assistance to the impoverished elderly — topped her list of concerns.
With as many as 55 seats in the Senate — an increase of four — Republicans will be better positioned to pressure Democrats into at least reducing their use of the filibuster, the Senate maneuver that allows a party to block Senate action. A filibuster can be broken with the vote of 60 senators.
Democrats have used the filibuster to block Bush appointments to the judiciary who are considered extreme right.
With a 5-4 split on the U.S. Supreme Court against the liberal social issues most Jews favor — reproductive rights, church-state separation and gay rights — Jews anxiously are watching the health of the oldest liberal judge, 84-year-old John Paul Stevens.
“As a woman, as a Jew, as a mother of two daughters, I am very concerned where the Supreme Court will be, how it will protect my rights as a woman, the important separation of religion and government,” Rosenthal said.
Rosen, who is close to the congressional Democratic leadership — and who was mourning the defeat Tuesday of an old friend, Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — said such concerns were valid, but not as pressing as some might think.
“As for the domestic agenda, I know it seems that the Republicans have increased their numbers in the Senate, but if there are any dramatic attempts to change some of the domestic policy issues, the Democrats still have enough strength to pull that back,” said Rosen, whose organization, the AJCongress has been in the forefront of battles to maintain a high wall between church and state.
“The president and the country are engaged in a war against terrorism, a war in Iraq, a lot of priorities internationally that I think will engage the Bush administration for the next several years and probably not enable them to get too proactive on the domestic agenda.”
Among those issues are the war in Iraq — where Bush has yet to reveal how he plans to contain a rampaging insurgency — as well as Iran, which could soon pose a nuclear threat.
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst with bitterlemons.org, an idea-exchange Web site, said Iran would probably ignore any sanctions that the U.N. Security Council might impose in coming months, raising the stakes for Bush.
“He will have to ask, does he or does he not use military force, or does he let Iran go nuclear on his watch?” Alpher said.
Should Bush choose force, he would probably have the domestic backing he recently has lacked for the war in Iraq, when some dismissed him as a president who lost the popular vote in 2000 and who had a bare majority of a single vote in the Senate.
One signal of his direction would be Cabinet replacements.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, both have hinted that they’re ready to go. Powell especially has been an emblem of moderation and outreach to allies.
Whatever direction Bush takes, the circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship are as much a hindrance to increased action as is Bush’s reluctance to cross Sharon.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s ongoing political isolation — necessitated, Israelis and Americans say, by his support for terrorism — would hinder engagement as long as Arafat has influence, as he continues to do from a Paris hospital bed.
“If Arafat is still leader, that reduces the likelihood of Bush getting involved,” Alpher said. “He won’t be prepared to interact with Arafat. We’re unlikely to see a major shift in the coming year.”
Bush would probably not introduce any grand new initiatives, agreed David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But no one should underestimate the complexities of simply maintaining the U.S. course in the region.
Specifically, Makovksy cited the U.S. involvement in helping to guarantee a smooth withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year.
“Whoever would have won would have to focus on the three main priorities in the arena: Gaza, Gaza, Gaza,” he said. “It will require layers of coordination and the United States is the only country capable — it is the indispensable nation. Any first 100 days should be focused on that.”