WASHINGTON — As the 2024 election gets into gear, both Republicans and Democrats are again using Israel as a wedge issue.
A lot has changed in both countries since the last presidential election, but in the halls of Congress, the battle over Israel is playing out in familiar ways.
Republicans have accused President Joe Biden of snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he has yet to invite to the White House amid policy disagreements. Democrats, meanwhile, say that the Republicans’ proposed spending cuts endanger foreign aid to Israel.
And leaders of both parties have indicated that, even amid a high-states fight over the debt ceiling, displaying support for Israel remains a priority. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House speaker, took time this week to lead a bipartisan delegation to Israel, where he addressed the Knesset.
That was just a week after Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic minority leader from New York, led his own delegation to the country, and laid a wreath to mark its Memorial Day. Also visiting the country recently to demonstrate his support: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to launch his bid for the GOP presidential nomination this month.
McCarthy’s speech in Israel’s parliament was nonpartisan, but his remarks to reporters were less so. McCarthy told Israel Hayom, a right-leaning tabloid, that Biden was wrong not to invite Netanyahu to Washington, saying Netanyahu has waited “too long” since returning to office in December.
“If that doesn’t happen, I’ll invite the prime minister to come meet with the House,” McCarthy said. “He’s a dear friend, as a prime minister of a country that we have our closest ties with.”
Amir Ohana, the speaker of Knesset and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, had hinted that his invitation to McCarthy was a sort of rebuke to Biden. The U.S. president has indicated that he is not interested in seeing Netanyahu until the Israeli leader limits the influence of his far-right coalition partners, and walks back his controversial effort to weaken Israel’s judiciary. Biden has said the judicial overhaul would undercut Israel’s democracy.
As McCarthy was getting ready to leave Israel, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a senior Democrat, was telling colleagues that Republican budget maneuvers were imperiling US assistance to Israel.
Wasserman Schultz’s warning came after House Republicans, voting on party lines, passed a debt limit bill that would curb and then reduce government spending. What, exactly, the bill proposes to cut and keep is not clear. But Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish representative from South Florida, said that the bill’s language mandates cuts across all non-defense spending, including foreign aid. That means, she said, that the $3.3 billion Israel gets annually in defense assistance could be reduced by as much as $726 million.
“That puts Israel’s security at risk,” Wasserman Schultz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Without any specificity or explicit protection we can’t be sure that Israel is safe.”
McCarthy has pitched the debt limit bill as an opening gambit: It has no chance of advancing as is in the Democratic-led Senate, and McCarthy has said he will get to specifics once negotiations start. Legislation is needed to lift the amount the government is able to borrow, or it could risk a default on its debt.
On Sunday, a McCarthy spokesperson told JTA that security assistance to Israel would remain untouched, and McCarthy made the pledge explicit in his Knesset speech the following day. “As long as I am Speaker, America will continue to support full funding for security assistance in Israel,” he said.
Similarities to 2011 discussion of Israel
In some ways, this week’s debate mirrors the way Israel was discussed in 2011, the last time a Democratic president was up for reelection as Republicans controlled the House. Back then, Republicans chided President Barack Obama for being insufficiently friendly to Israel, while Democrats warned that Republican spending cuts would harm aid to Israel.
But Wasserman Schultz said that in one respect, that year’s Republican spending bill was not as risky for Israel. Before the 2010 election,Rep. Eric Cantor, a Jewish Republican, pledged that Israel spending was sacrosanct, and the Republicans’ subsequent bill said that aid to Israel would not be reduced.
“They have nothing in that bill with specificity that ensures that foreign aid to Israel will be protected,” Wasserman Schultz said regarding this year’s spending bill.
Wasserman Schultz hasn’t been the only one to seek assurances that aid to Israel would be left alone. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, has also asked that Israel cuts be taken off the table.
“We are continuing our work with congressional leaders to ensure full funding of security assistance to Israel, without additional conditions,” Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC’s spokesman, told JTA. “This is a top legislative priority, as it is in the security interests of the U.S and our ally Israel, and we are pleased that many members of Congress have already written senior members of the Appropriations Committee in support of this funding.”
Wasserman Schultz said that while she welcomed McCarthy’s reassurance on Israel, she worries that Republican cuts could impact foreign aid overall. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have also said that foreign aid generally — not just to Israel — is essential to preserving U.S. influence internationally.
“Words matter but the actions in the House Republican Default on America bill that passed the House doesn’t match the rhetoric,” she said in a text message on Monday, using a derisive name for the Republican bill. “But even if his Caucus allows him to follow through on those words, the drastic cuts called for in the Default on America Act would decimate support for our partners and diplomatic efforts in the region and undercut Israel’s overall security.”
Asked in Jerusalem about the debt limit negotiations, McCarthy said that in at least one respect, he and the prime minister were in the same boat.
“The president still hasn’t talked to me,” he said, just hours before Biden invited him to the White House to launch debt limit negotiations. “I’m a little like Netanyahu.”