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House GOP approach to Israel aid risks eroding US leverage

Sen. Kaine: Israeli leaders 'know that they desperately need us right now'

An American-made M109 howitzer artillery system fires rounds near the border with Gaza on Oct. 8.
An American-made M109 howitzer artillery system fires rounds near the border with Gaza on Oct. 8. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Keeping U.S. military aid flowing to Israel would mean keeping some leverage over embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision-making. But that’s only if you’re playing global chess. House Republicans, however, continue playing domestic checkers.

If the latter is your game, House Republicans have just the Israeli assistance package for you.

“They know that they desperately need us right now,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said Wednesday, referring to top Israeli officials.

At several points during a Tuesday Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Biden administration’s $106 billion emergency spending request for military and other aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered examples of how U.S. assistance is at the forefront of discussions with top Israeli officials.

“We’ve invested in our greatest strategic asset abroad: our network of allies and partners,” Blinken said. “The president’s request would secure the urgent resources that we need to continue to lead.” He also noted that a group of senators recently traveled to Tel Aviv, where they “heard directly from Israeli officials [about] what they need to defend their people and prevent another attack.”

Some Arab leaders and global security experts, almost a month after Hamas launched a brutal attack into Israel, are trying to set up a chess board and visualize moves to avoid another strike like the one Oct. 7 that killed 1,400 Israeli civilians and led to retaliation in Gaza that reportedly has killed about six times as many Palestinians.

Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign affairs minister, said at a recent think tank forum that Arab leaders “really value the role of the United States. And we know without a leading American, I mean, American role, we can never get out of the quagmires to which we continue falling.”

Sarah Yager, a former senior Pentagon adviser to the Joint Chiefs chairman, noted recently that “the United States is perhaps the only country that can influence Israel in this moment.”

“The U.S.-Israeli security relationship dates back to Israel’s creation after World War II. … The militaries of the United States and Israel share intelligence and have trained together for decades,” Yager, now the president of Human Rights Watch, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs. “The United States has a duty to make sure that its partners uphold agreed-on standards.”

Such standards, even if Israel abides by them lightly, could prevent some deaths inside Gaza and keep the conflict from spilling into other parts of the region. That could draw the U.S. military back into a part of the world that has long been strategic quicksand for foreign forces.

Blinken told Senate appropriators that keeping military aid flowing to Netanyahu’s government via an emergency spending package would “ensure that Israel can continue to defend its people by building on the diplomatic security and intelligence support that the United States has surged since Hamas’ appalling slaughter.”

House Republican leaders, however, are putting at risk one of Washington’s biggest tools in what could bleed over into a regional — or global — conflict. New Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., is pushing a bill that could hit the floor as soon as Thursday that proposes sending over $14 billion in aid to Israel.

But the House bill proposes an equal amount of what GOP leaders cast as spending “offsets” — cuts to the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service. Senate Democrats and the White House — completely predictably — promptly rejected the idea. The Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday the measure would increase the federal deficit by $12.5 billion over a decade.

Some independent budget experts and White House officials have called them anything but “offsets.” Administration officials say President Joe Biden would veto the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he would not bring it to the floor. Schumer said Wednesday the House bill “needlessly politicizes aid to Israel” by making it “conditional on hard-right, never-going-to-pass proposals.”

Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., on Wednesday called the IRS provision a “stupid idea.”

Steven Ellis, president of the nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in a statement: “It’s ridiculous to call this an offset, considering the IRS funding is projected to reduce deficits. … This is a cynical ploy that risks crippling the IRS, exacerbating underfunding and understaffing issues that hurt taxpayers nationwide.”

‘Needs to be restrained’

Some GOP lawmakers worry about America’s leverage on the global stage and the ramifications if the Hamas-Israel war spills into the rest of the region. One is Senate Foreign Relations Committee member James Lankford of Oklahoma.

“They know the Israelis will fight morally, though they are; Hamas is not fighting morally. Hamas can step in and can slaughter 1,400 people while they’re sleeping in their beds, and they hold Israel to a higher standard to say, you won’t go after a hospital,” he said Sunday on CNN. “Israel needs to be restrained in going after Hamas and protecting civilians, as they have been.”

But most House Republicans — who long ago decided Washington should cut off the aid spigot to Ukraine even amid warnings it would further embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin — are still drinking from their MAGA thermoses, filled with Donald Trump’s “America First” elixir. It’s a little bit isolationist, and a whole lot devoid of strategic thinking.

They are not alone on Capitol Hill. The Senate Republican conference remains split on whether to attach their version of an Israel aid bill to additional assistance to Ukraine. And when it comes to leverage over Netanyahu, one Senate Armed Services Committee member on Monday did not sound at all concerned with such a chess move.

“You hate it for civilians, but, you know, you have to give it to Israel. They did bomb some,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said of Palestinian civilians. “But they also sent out pamphlets and told ‘em to get out.”

As Israeli forces move deeper and deeper inside Gaza, calls are increasing for a ceasefire, or at least pauses in the fighting to allow more water, food and medication into the area.

But to achieve any such pauses and hold back Netanyahu’s boldest war plans, Washington needs maximum leverage.

Only the U.S. — largely because of its security assistance — has been able to have what Yager described as “tough conversation[s] with Israel about its conduct, publicly criticize Israel when it harms civilians and curb military transfers to Israel when U.S. weapons are used to violate international law.”

If House Republican leaders refuse to budge from their current approach, which Senate leaders and Biden have made clear they will not support, Washington’s leverage would drastically shrink. The world very well could have to deal with a less-restrained Israeli government. And, likely, a much wider war. One that, eventually, could require American ground forces.

Once the chess pieces start dropping in the Middle East, things devolve quickly toward strategic checkmate.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

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