Analysis: Midterm vote to influence Mideast peace

JERUSALEM Wed Oct 20, 2010 10:59am EDT

President Barack Obama waves before departing the White House for a fundraiser in Maryland, October 18, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

President Barack Obama waves before departing the White House for a fundraiser in Maryland, October 18, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Next month's midterm elections might do more than just redefine the political landscape in Washington, they could also have a significant impact on stalled Middle East peace talks. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, launched with gusto by President Barack Obama in September, have fallen into limbo ahead of the November 2 vote as both sides bide their time and wait to see how the U.S. leader emerges from the campaign.

Polls predict hefty losses for Obama's Democrats and Israeli ministers expect this will force him to avoid any bruising showdowns with Israel and its supporters in the coming months for fear of further undermining his shaky electoral position.

Palestinians hope that after the vote, Obama will refocus on foreign affairs and use the last two years of his presidential mandate to seek a place in history by securing an end to the decades-old conflict, regardless of obvious domestic risks.

But Palestinians also fear an enfeebled Obama will be in no position to wring concessions from Israel, starting with their demand that Netanyahu suspends Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank -- the issue that has stalled the talks.

"If Obama comes out of the election considerably weaker, then Netanyahu will use this new balance to try to get everything he wants," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's inner negotiating team.

"Netanyahu is not negotiating with us. He is negotiating with the Americans," he added.

An Israeli who has had regular contact with Netanyahu, but declined to be named, said the prime minister had long made clear that he was anxious for the midterm vote to pass.

"I will feel more relaxed after November 2010," he quoted the prime minister as saying, indicating that Obama would be less inclined to put heavy pressure on Israel to cede ground in negotiations if, as expected, he lost out in the November poll.

POWERFUL FRIENDS

Israel has numerous, powerful supporters in the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers are traditionally protective of Washington's strongest ally in the Middle East, providing it with about $2.5 billion a year in aid.

When Obama's administration angrily confronted Israel last year over plans for settlement expansion, Republicans seized on the row as a sign that he was weak on basic security issues and unfairly hitting on a trusted friend.

Obama finally backed away from his demand for a freeze of all settlement activity, but the episode left its scars, with the Israeli government still upset at perceived U.S. slights and the Palestinians feeling abandoned by the U-turn.

"The Americans, in a very incompetent way, have put everyone in a very tight corner," said Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University and a former director-general of Israel's foreign ministry.

"Everyone understands that if there is going to be another confrontation, the U.S. administration does not want it to happen before the election," he added.

In the run-up to the midterm vote, Israeli newspapers have jumped on opinion polls showing that support for Obama among Jewish electors had slumped dramatically.

Obama swept the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential ballot, but a survey by the American Jewish Committee this month said just 49 percent of U.S. Jews backed his handling of Israeli relations, against a 62 percent approval rating for Netanyahu.

NOTHING TO LOSE?

Israeli media has also reported that deep-pocketed Jewish donors have been reluctant to fund the Democrats this time around and analysts doubt whether Obama will risk antagonizing such a vital constituency ahead of any 2012 re-election bid.

"He has already lost most of the Jewish vote and friendly (Jewish) elements inside the United States," said Guy Bechor, the director of Middle Eastern studies at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, a private university in Israel.

"Obama wants to win power again ... and I don't think that he will be putting any more pressure on Israel," he added.

But some analysts have questioned whether a catastrophic midterm vote might convince Obama he has nothing to lose and decide to lean heavily on Israel to accept painful compromises -- something Arab states say must happen to clinch a deal.

Israel says both sides must make concessions and denies any suggestions that it is to blame for the current impasse.

Abed Rabbo said he thought Obama could present new peace proposals after the election, particularly on defining borders, that would not be in line with Netanyahu's thinking.

"I am sure he will hate these bridging proposals. That is why he is playing all these games with the Americans," he said.

Any attempt to impose a solution on Israel would cause consternation in Netanyahu's government and at least one veteran diplomat thought it was highly unlikely to happen.

"Whatever the result of the midterms, I doubt that Obama will put pressure on Netanyahu because he must know that to make any progress, there has to be close coordination with Israel," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who has served as an adviser to Netanyahu.

(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)