Political Pulse July 2006

The Middle East and the Midterms

American politics is bitterly divided over Iraq. But not over the conflict in the Middle East.
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Will the Middle East conflict have an impact on this year's midterm elections? It depends on which war dominates the agenda—the one in Lebanon or the one in Iraq.

An average of 100 people a day are being killed in Iraq, according to a United Nations report. The past month has been the most violent since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But the press and the public have been focused, understandably, on the escalating warfare in Israel and Lebanon. That shift has political implications, according to Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report. "To the extent that the public sees the current hostilities in the Middle East as part of the larger war against terror, and as evidence of a global terror threat, that could actually help President Bush regain some standing," Rothen- berg said.

The war on terror is a Republican issue. Iraq is a Democratic issue. A Gallup/USA Today poll taken last month showed Republicans with an 11-point lead over Democrats on terrorism (46 percent to 35 percent). Democrats held a 10-point lead over Republicans on Iraq (47 percent to 37 percent).

Israel is fighting a war with two Islamic radical groups, Hezbollah and Hamas. Islamic radicals are also America's enemies in the war on terror. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed conscious of that when he said to the Knesset (parliament) last week, "Are we to throw up our hands and give in to the threats from the axis of evil?"

American politics is bitterly divided over Iraq. But apparently not over the conflict in the Middle East. "Republican candidates for Congress, Democratic candidates for Congress, all talk about their support for Israel," Rothenberg said. "There aren't two sides here." A poll conducted last week by Opinion Research for CNN showed 58 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Republicans professing sympathy for Israel. Only 4 percent of respondents felt sympathy for Hezbollah.

One issue does produce a sharp political division: a cease-fire. In the CNN poll, a majority of Republicans (57 percent to 34 percent) felt that Israel should continue to take military action until the Hezbollah threat is eliminated, rather than seek an immediate cease-fire. A majority of Democrats (57 percent to 28 percent) wanted Israel to agree to a cease-fire rather than continue fighting. Many Democrats were critical of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she said, before departing for the Middle East, "A cease-fire would be a false promise if it simply returns us to the status quo."

Democrats could argue that the Bush administration's policies have made the Middle East problem worse. First, by allowing Iran's power and influence to grow. And second, by supporting elections that gave dangerous forces like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Shiite radicals a foothold in power.

Martin Indyk, President Clinton's ambassador to Israel, criticized the Bush administration's view "that the best way to deal with the problems of the Middle East was through regime change and democratization rather than through negotiations for peace and an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict." Rice used harsh words to condemn that argument. Speaking to reporters at the G-8 summit in Russia, Rice said, "Because we are now fighting extremism, because we are pressing for a democratic voice for the people of the Middle East—that somehow that has now caused the current crisis, I think is grotesque."

The Democrats' best bet may be to change the subject. "I think they're always going to want to get back to Iraq," Rothenberg said. "They don't want to transfer the debate to Lebanon. That's not a winning issue for them. Democrats know they have a winning issue in Iraq."

Last week, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said he has reached the conclusion that "there is a civil war going on in Iraq." He plans to revive the Iraq debate on the Senate floor before the August recess. "We know, and the [Republicans] know, that this is the No. 1 issue on the minds of people across America," Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin said. "When [voters] say they want significant change in America and you ask them what they're talking about, their answer is Iraq."

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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