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Democrats’ Victory Won’t Affect Israel Policy, but Could Impact Iran

November 10, 2006
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The tone of the U.S.-Israel relationship remains the same whoever controls Congress, but Democratic pledges to stringently oversee the Iraq war could affect how the United States confronts Iran. Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in the Tuesday elections, the latter conclusively decided with Sen. George Allen’s concession of the Virginia race Thursday afternoon.

The first casualty of the new order appeared to be Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s deeply unpopular defense secretary who was identified with the Iraq war. Rumsfeld’s removal meant the Cabinet had lost one of the most ardent advocates of the policy of containing Iran.

Bipartisan support for Israel would be constant, Jewish and Israeli officials said, defying a pre-election barrage of Republic Jewish Coalition ads that insisted that the Democratic Party’s support for Israel was eroding.

“It’s clear the 110th Congress will continue America’s long tradition of staunch support for a strong, safe and secure Israel and an abiding relationship between the United States and our most reliable ally in the Middle East,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Deadlock between Congress and the White House “will influence domestic policy — immigration, health care, taxes, social policies, the Supreme Court. It won’t influence foreign policy, with the possible exception of Iraq,” said Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, who is finishing his term. “For sure, not the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Ayalon said there simply wasn’t that much to reconsider in the region, as long as the Hamas party that rules the Palestinian Authority continues to reject Israel’s existence and refuses to renounce terrorism.

If the Bush administration and Congress do not see “an internal Palestinian process that reveals a real partner, one that gives and takes with the Israeli government, it will be more of the same,” he said.

Top Democrats, including party chairman Howard Dean, said in the final days of the campaign that the party would leave foreign policy to the president.

“The Democratic leadership would know its limits in a time when it has a small majority in the House or Senate,” Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said days before the election.

Still, Congress could have a profound influence on foreign policy through its most powerful tool: oversight.

The inevitable debate over the Iraq war could reveal differences on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat, hampering Bush administration efforts to force Iran to stop enriching uranium, a precursor to manufacturing a nuclear weapon, said Raymond Tanter, a Georgetown University professor who heads the Iran Policy Committee, a group that advocates Western support for opposition groups in Iran.

The White House “will have to accommodate the ‘realists,’ ” Tanter said, referring to the foreign policy hands who favor limiting U.S. intervention abroad and who played a significant role in the foreign policy of the first President Bush. The younger Bush has largely ignored their advice.

Bob Gates, President Bush’s nominee to replace Rumsfeld as defense secretary, is in the realist camp, which advised against the Iraq war. Gates served as CIA director under Bush’s father and was close to the elder Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, and national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Both men are known for their opposition to the younger Bush’s broad goals of democratizing Iraq and the region.

The congressionally mandated commission on the Iraq war headed by Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, reportedly is ready to recommend direct talks with Shi’ite-dominated Iran as a means of tamping down Shi’ite-Sunni violence in Iraq.

“Baker and Hamilton will be called before the congressional committees in January for hearings,” Tanter said — and, subsequently, “much of the international community, intelligentsia and the press will push for a grand bargain with Iran.”

That could mean allowing Iran some uranium-enrichment capabilities while extracting promises that the material would not reach weapons grade, he said.

Of course, “the only problem with a grand bargain is whether Iran will keep it,” he said.

James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, said he hoped the new Congress — guided by the Baker-Hamilton recommendations — would restrain what he saw as an overly aggressive posture toward Iran. “My hope is that it provides some kind of restraint on administration policy towards Iran,” he said Thursday at an Israel Policy Forum panel. Zogby said he agreed that Iran’s theocratic leaders posed the greatest threat in the region, but that Bush administration belligerence had only empowered them. “They emerged from this war in Iraq empowered and emboldened.”

Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Iran was not a partisan issue, but he agreed that bickering over Iraq could hamper efforts to convince Iran of U.S. seriousness.

“The more we telegraph we want to pull troops from Iraq, the more the Iranians think they have us by the balls,” Rubin said.

He worried that could lead to Iranian overconfidence, and — much like its proxy Hezbollah misread Israel’s determination to strike back this summer in Lebanon — Iran could believe it’s in a position to raise the stakes.

“Iranian decision makers don’t have an accurate understanding of U.S. policy,” he said. “They’re dangerously overconfident.”

Iranian perceptions of U.S. intent would depend more on how the Bush administration compartmentalized its domestic and foreign challenges than on how Congress behaved, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which favors aggressive congressional oversight of Iraq.

“The Clinton administration was able to maintain its agenda while dealing with investigations” during impeachment, Saperstein said. “Trying to learn the lessons from Iraq that urgently need to be learned is indispensable to acting more effectively and efficiently in securing America’s security interests around the world.”

Hadar Susskind, Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that, like Israel, Darfur — the region of Sudan where government-allied militias have massacred tens of thousands of civilians — presents opportunities for bipartisan cooperation.

“Darfur is going to be a great test for Nancy Pelosi,” the California Democrat who leads the party and is set to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, “and the House Democrats on how they intend to work with the president and the House minority, because there’s a tremendous amount of agreement.”

Bush is considering imposing sanctions on Sudan if it does not allow in U.N. peacekeepers by Jan. 1. U.S. Jewish groups have led the movement to bring relief to the troubled region.

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