What does a divided Congress mean for Israel-related issues?

‘The threats and challenges to both American and Israeli interests in the region continue to align,’ says B’nai B’rith CEO.

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in 2015. Bibi correctly calculated that maintaining consensus support for Israel in America did not necessitate a willingness to downplay opposition to Iran, says the writer. (photo credit: GARY CAMERON/REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in 2015. Bibi correctly calculated that maintaining consensus support for Israel in America did not necessitate a willingness to downplay opposition to Iran, says the writer.
(photo credit: GARY CAMERON/REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – After two years in which both chambers of US Congress were under Democratic control, the 118th Congress, to be sworn in next Tuesday, will divide the power between both parties. Republicans are set to hold a narrow, 10-seat majority in the House of Representatives, while Democrats will have the edge in the US Senate.

In the hyper-partisan reality of Washington, one question that comes to mind is how will both parties work on Israel-related issues? Will they find common ground to pass relevant legislation, or will they take an opposing approach, for example, in hearings and appropriations?

“With the most impactful contribution of Congress, Israel’s $3.8 billion in annual military assistance, locked into a 10-year cycle, Israel is largely insulated from the gridlock that may accompany the new, divided Congress,” said Scott Lasensky, a visiting professor of Israel and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland and a former State Department official with expertise on Israel.

“I would also give a tremendous amount of credit to [US] President [Joe] Biden and key cabinet members like Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken and Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin,” he said. “They have kept Israel largely out of partisan wrangling.”

 STANDING TOGETHER at the US Capitol in support of Israel, in 2002. (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS) STANDING TOGETHER at the US Capitol in support of Israel, in 2002. (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Israel will need to steer clear of partisan jockeying

The balancing act for Israel, and especially for the new government, will be to steer clear of partisan jockeying and avoid Israel becoming a proxy for partisan competition, which would likely alienate and anger Democrats,” Lasensky said.

“Resisting the temptation to seek minor, short-term gains, even symbolic ones, especially via the House, at the expense of long-term bipartisan support – that will be a challenge for [Prime Minister-designate Benjamin] Netanyahu and the new government,” he said.

Binding congressional action may be less important than the tenor and sentiment in this new Congress, and in this respect, hearings and visits will be key barometers, Lasensky said.

“Influential members to watch, for example, are Senator [Robert] Menendez [D-New Jersey], who weighed in quietly against the far-right parties ahead of the election, or Senator [Chris] Van Hollen [D-Maryland], who is a bellwether and influencer on peace-process issues,” he said. “In this respect, the dynamics in Congress matter less than the actions the new Israeli government takes.”

Dan Arbell, a scholar in residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at American University and a 25-year veteran of the Israeli Foreign Service, said: “I believe that we will see a difference between the chambers in terms of the sentiment of each chamber, as well as public statements, and hearings.”

“At the first stage, the aid to Israel will be approved as usual in both chambers, but I can see the Senate leading a more critical approach towards Israel,” he said. “While there are relatively less progressive senators compared to their House peers, and while their positions on Israel are not the same, I believe that many senators would adhere to any guidance or requests from the White House on Israel-related policy and legislation.”

Elana Broitman, senior vice president for public affairs at the Jewish Federations of North America, said she was heartened that leaders from both parties have been vocal about their support for Israel.

Broitman voiced hope to continue to work in a bipartisan way “to promote Israel normalization and regional prosperity through expanding the Abraham Accords and people-to-people initiatives, such as those funded by the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act.”

B’nai B’rith International CEO Dan Mariaschin said he expected bipartisan support to continue.

“That Israel will soon have a new government, or that the Congress is now divided, will not alter that objective in any way,” he said. “The threats and challenges to both American and Israeli interests in the region continue to align, especially given Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon, its involvement in the Ukraine war and in its brutal suppression of protesters in the streets of Iranian cities.”

“It appears that some of Israel’s incessant critics, including those who call Israel an apartheid state or who would impose conditionality on arms sales and deliveries, will be back in this Congress,” Mariaschin said. “Whether their motivation is ideological or neo-isolationist, they won’t be representative of the still-broad support that Israel enjoys in both houses.”

Jason Issacson, chief policy and political affairs officer at the American Jewish Committee, said he expected continued “strong, bipartisan support for Israel – a rare unifying issue – in both houses in the new Congress.”“If the new coalition government takes steps that are seen as exacerbating tensions, there may be a minority of members in both houses who will propose restrictions of, or conditions on, vital US aid to Israel,” he said.