Once again, the Middle East looms large in US politics. Hamas’s attack on southern Israel will reverberate in the weeks and months to come. On Monday, Joe Biden announced that 11 Americans were killed. Already, the political fallout is being felt in the White House and Capitol Hill, in California and in New York.
The strains between the Biden administration and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have subsided. As a result, the Republicans can no longer try to lay sole claim to the pro-Israel card heading into the 2024 elections.
On Sunday, the US president and Netanyahu spoke by phone. The White House readout of the call was unambiguous, referring to Hamas as “terrorists” and adding that: “The two leaders committed to stay in regular contact over the coming days.”
Then, on Monday, Biden took things further. “The ties between Israel and the United States run deep … the American people stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israelis,” he announced in a statement. “The US and the State of Israel are inseparable partners.”
This is all a big deal. Until recently, Netanyahu and Biden had not been the closest of friends. The prime minister’s ongoing gambit to curb the independence of Israel’s judiciary coupled with the presence of hardline Jewish supremacists in his cabinet complicated things.
Team Biden has not generally been keen to roll out a red carpet to Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Unlike Benny Gantz, Israel’s former defense minister and the head of an opposition party, Netanyahu has not yet been to the White House. The nearest he came to Biden was at the sidelines of the opening of the UN general assembly. Netanyahu is expected to officially visit the US by year’s end.
Responding to Israel’s request, the US is poised to arm the Jewish state. On Sunday, Lloyd Austin, the US secretary of defense, ordered the Ford carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean in a show of support. For the record, the USS Gerald R Ford is the navy’s latest and most advanced carrier.
How exactly the uptick in relations between the US and Israel plays out remains to be seen. Right now, the Senate is in recess and the Republican-led House lacks a speaker. Until the House elects a permanent successor to Kevin McCarthy, doubt surrounds the ability of Congress to appropriate supplemental funds to Israel. Likewise, Ukraine and the Mexico border wall may complicate things, too.
Beyond that, abortion politics may hinder administration attempts to replenish Israel’s stockpiles. Right now, Alabama’s Republican senator Tommy Tuberville, the ex-Auburn football coach, is holding up confirmation of hundreds of Pentagon officials over abortion policy. Some of them stand to be involved in weapons transfers.
Apparently, the freshman senator forgot that the US supreme court’s decision in Dobbs gutting abortion rights cost the Republican party control of the Senate and turned a much-anticipated “red wave” in the House into a trickle, leaving McCarthy to suffer at the hands of Matt Gaetz and his fellow arsonists.
In addition, the Senate has yet to act on the nomination of Jack Lew as US ambassador to Israel. An Orthodox Jew and Harvard graduate, Lew served as treasury secretary under Obama. In August, the rightwing and Republican-aligned Zionist Organization of America announced its opposition to his nomination.
Then there is also the issue of normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations. Right now, normalization no longer appears to be on the front burner.
The Hamas attack also shook internal Democratic politics. In California’s Senate race, Congressman Adam Schiff is the only one of the three leading Democratic candidates to voice unambiguous support for Israel. By contrast, Representative Katie Porter condemned the loss of lives on both sides. Representative Barbara Lee called for a ceasefire and offered her prayers for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Yet it was in New York City where the left’s not-so-subterranean skirmishes over Israel burst into the open. On Sunday, several hundred pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanted “Globalize the intifada,” and “Smash the settler Zionist state.” They also taunted Israel over the number of people killed. The Democratic Socialists of America was an event sponsor. Expect middle-America to be turned off by these antics.
Kathy Hochul, New York’s governor, blasted the rally as “abhorrent and morally repugnant”. Representative Ritchie Torres, a Bronx congressman, wrote: “There is a special place in hell for those who glorify the cold-blooded murder of civilians and children.”
Joe Biden may yet be the last unalloyed pro-Israel Democratic president. But right now, it is he who sets the tone of US policy.
Lloyd Green is an attorney in New York and served in the US Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992