The midterm elections brought a swift and stirring blow to the Democratic Party and to the President. This surprised no one, and it says a lot about where the American people are right now. The desperate economic situation has actually pushed American voters toward stronger candidates who advocate more radical positions rather than the moderates who, conventional wisdom tends to think, don’t alienate people and garner the “moderate middle” voters.
One of the lesser-reported facts of this election was the decimation of the “Blue Dog Democrats,” who lost half their number in the House. While it didn’t cut across the board in all elections, Americans certainly seemed to say they wanted to change the way politics are done in the US, and that they’re tired of middle-of-the-road leaders, indecisive in their choices. While this sort of thing has been a campaign slogan as far back as I can remember, I do not recall an election where it was reflected so strongly, especially on the heels of America electing a President largely on similar, albeit in Obama’s case, misplaced, sentiments.
So, what does all this have to do with Israel? More than one might think. When we couple it with some other crucial information about how Jews voted in this election, we can see the real room for change.
Jews, it turns out, stayed the Democratic course and, more importantly the massive attacks launched by ultra-right wing groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel had virtually no effect. With the exception of the Orthodox community, American Jews considered Israel a very low priority issue, completely dwarfed by the economy. And, as I read it, the polls also reflect a Jewish feeling in line with most liberals—that the problem is that the action taken on the economy, like on the Middle East, has not been decisive enough.
MJ Rosenberg contends that with Republican hawks in control of the House, things look better for peace. His idea is that “… it is Democrats, not Republicans who rush to the floor every time a possible peace initiative raises its head and shoots it down.” He’s right about that, but with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen about to assume the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and Eric Cantor poised to be House Majority leader, there will be more than enough zealotry, political cache and political experience to make progress on the Israel-Palestine issue a very rough road indeed.
It’s true that Democrats torpedoed Obama’s efforts in the first two years of his presidency. A stronger president might be able to “heroically” confront Congress and the “hundreds of lobbyists” George H. W. Bush talked about, but, as I’ve said, it has become clear that Obama doesn’t have the will to do that.
Others have contended that the election was a major victory for Benjamin Netanyahu and his resistance to peace moves. Certainly, I’d agree that Bibi thinks this is the case. Indeed, Netanyahu has been maneuvering to put off any serious decision until after these elections, which, from the first, he knew would go against Obama because it would not be possible for the US to right the economic ship left in shambles by the Bush Administration.
But, really, what has Bibi gained? Under Ros-Lehtinen’s guidance, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs will likely come up with some legislation at least as damaging to peace efforts as the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act she sponsored in 2006. But Howard Berman, Anthony Weiner, Gary Ackerman, Henry Waxman and other Congressional Democrats were able to push the President from within his own party to back off of pressure on Israel.
No, more likely the reality of this post-election playing field is that little has really changed regarding Israel, Obama and the near-term efforts at peace. Congress was an obstacle before and it will continue to be one. Obama could either take on the challenge or not and that also remains the case.
So why does this election matter?
The two messages – that people are craving bold political action in general and that elected officials who take a stand for peace are not going to be voted out – that were sent to the Democrats could resonate for a long time, if advocates for justice and peace keep them alive, particularly in mainstream discourse.
I’ll be hoping that President Obama proves me wrong and takes these messages as a spur to take on Congress and AIPAC and push hard for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, a shared Jerusalem, a reasonable resolution to the issue of refugees—in short, one based on the eminently reasonable Arab Peace Initiative. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.
But this election shows that it is decisive action, not appeasement of the defenders of the status quo or the outright enemies of peace, is warranted and politically feasible. We have the tools we need to push not only Obama but also his successors in that direction. We have the political ammunition to combat those who would dishonestly claim that Americans, much less American Jews, want our government to back away from pressuring Israel on settlements and borders.
So, contrary to what one might think at first blush, now is the time to redouble our efforts. America is in a mood for change, so let’s offer a change in Middle East policy.