Netanyahu heads to US after Republican victory

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JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to the United States this weekend after a Republican victory that is unlikely to ease US pressure on Israel over stalled peace talks, analysts said.

Pro-Israel activists in the United States and elsewhere hailed the Republican sweep, which saw the party take back the House of Representatives and dramatically reduce Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

But analysts said the Republican influx was unlikely to dramatically alter the US approach to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which President Barack Obama launched September 2.

The talks ran aground just weeks later, with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas refusing to return to the negotiating table unless Israel renewed a moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

The United States has pushed Netanyahu to renew the freeze, which is unpopular among many here, including in his hardline coalition, but the
Israeli premier has so far resisted.

Many speculated he was holding out until after the US elections, hoping a victory for the Republicans, who are often perceived as more sympathetic to Israel than their Democratic counterparts, would temper White House pressure.

However, analysts stressed Congress plays a relatively small role in US foreign policy.

"Congress has very little influence on the shaping and direction of American diplomacy," Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told AFP.

"At the most it can constrain a president and apply pressure."

And while the election defeat leaves Obama with a divided Congress, he is not the first Democratic president to try Middle East peacemaking with a strong Republican presence on Capitol Hill.

"One should recall that during the (Bill) Clinton administration, with two Republican houses of Congress that openly sided with Netanyahu, he still ended up having to sign the Wye River agreement," Rynhold said, referring to a 1998 deal that saw Israel withdraw from much of the West Bank city of Hebron.

Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, said the Democratic rout caused some "internal weakening" of the US presidency.

But he said Obama would retain "full authority and responsibility to continue to promote his policy" and had made clear that Middle East peace was a top priority.

For Netanyahu, the visit that begins Sunday will be a chance to assess whether his negotiating position has changed, and whether a weakened White House will offer more incentives in exchange for Israeli concessions.

"There is nothing he likes more than maneuvering in American politics and confronting contrarian congressional gridlock," wrote Aluf Benn, a leading Israeli journalist, in Haaretz newspaper.

The Israeli prime minister will start his visit in New Orleans, for a gathering of Jewish community groups. He will not be seeing Obama, who will be traveling in Asia at the time.

He is expected to hold talks with US Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

On Thursday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat held new talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Washington.

Those discussions and Netanyahu’s visit come just days before the Arab League is scheduled to meet again to review the deadlocked process.

Israeli media have speculated Netanyahu will present the United States with his own plan for moving the talks forward.

Last week the Maariv newspaper said Netanyahu would offer a three-month settlement freeze, followed by nine months of restricted building, setting aside a year for peace talks.

The report said he was also prepared to expand his government to bring in the centrist Kadima party, though Netanyahu’s office has denied he was currently negotiating with them.

Maariv on Friday said the Israeli premier could also push the US administration for a fresh set of incentives and guarantees in return for a new moratorium on settlement building.

But analysts said Netanyahu may be wary of pushing the administration for too much or playing the Republican Congress against the president, a mistake he made with Bill Clinton.

"His strategy in the mid-1990s was to use Congress to confront President Clinton, and it didn’t work," said Rynhold.



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