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Every few months during an election season, any number of my friends who work outside of politics will ring me with a sincere question, usually along the lines of I just saw this person on TV saying crazy things; is this what the party believes these days? Almost always, I respond that this is the price of having big-tent parties in the United States: the ringmaster can’t always command the center stage when so much is going on, sometimes the circus clowns get their hands on the microphones.
That’s just the consequence of chasing as large a caucus as possible in D.C. And it’s been an annoying one for rank-and-file Democrats this week after Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state once again grabbed the spotlight. Just days ahead of the Israeli President’s speech to Congress, she said at a tech-driven conference in Chicago that his nation “is a racist state.” Jayapal, who chairs the Democrats’ Congressional Progressive Caucus, quickly walked back her comments. Party Leaders issued a joint statement criticizing her words, but knew they were in for a week of Republican trolling. The typically verboten rhetoric was coming from inside the tent, and from the chair of the largest caucus for House Democrats at that.
On Tuesday, House Republicans scheduled a vote intended to force everyone to answer whether they thought Israel is a racist or apartheid state. As TIME’s Eric Cortellessa reports, it was merely one piece of a very complicated visit with a key U.S. ally, especially given President Joe Biden’s strong feelings about some Israeli leaders.
The purely symbolic measure in the House was meant to expose the intra-party rift over just how much support for Israel is expected, regardless of that nation’s leadership. Beforehand? Yes. On the House floor? No. The debate lasted a half hour and was entirely tilted in Israel’s favor. By the time it came time to vote by voice, it was so overwhelming that the House didn’t bother with a recorded vote of yays and nays.
For the moment, the Jayapal test is politically useful for House Republicans, during the week that President Isaac Herzog visits them and one day after Biden finally extended a notional invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting. (Netanyahu has been back in power since December, but Democrats—Biden among them—have been critical of Netanahu’s government. No date was attached to the soft invite, nor was an assurance it would be at the White House and not an off-site spot meant to signal Biden’s persistent frustration with the restored leader.)
But amid all this predictable outrage, there’s no reason to expect any change in the U.S. policy toward Israel, which has stayed relatively steady since it came into being after World War II. Even at their most frustrated with Israeli governments, American officials in both parties have offered typically unwavering support for the state of Israel. It’s a tricky balancing act when Israeli officials get too far over their skis, but there’s a less-than-zero chance that Washington would really balk at the roughly $4 billion in aid it sends there every year, plus national security tools and diplomatic cover at the United Nations.
No, this is actually about highlighting Jayapal in hopes of making her the face of an anti-Israel messaging push from Republicans. It’s part of the regular tit-for-tat from lawmakers trying to expose rifts within the opposition party. Both parties have challenging members, and these messaging tests are as common as they are meaningless. Still, it’s worth remembering that the House is full of loose-tongued lawmakers whose off-handed comments could dominate an entire Congress if these things go way off the rails.
Jayapal is among a handful of lawmakers who have been aggressively critical of Israel over its push to consolidate power for its majority and strip the courts of review powers. Others are also watching Israel’s rightward shift and the declining treatment of Palestinians as reasons to rethink just how closely Washington wants to hug one of its most reliable partners in the Middle East.
Jayapal, a masterful interrogator during House hearings, stands to complicate Democrats’ messaging for the next few days, even as others in her party considered a boycott of Herzog’s speech that now carries much different undertones after Jayapal’s remarks blew up. (Here’s what Jayapal actually said at Netroots Nation: “As somebody who’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible.”) As if expecting such an outburst, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week said boycotting the speech was an act of antisemitism.
Of course, the alternative to these problem children is to demand orthodoxy to the party’s official position, include fewer members, and wield less power. In almost every case, the choice is as predictable as it is logical. Just consider this fascinating new nugget from TIME’s Molly Ball about how the far-right Freedom Caucus is dealing with its own troublemaker, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene: members had a meeting about her after some pretty outlandish conduct, but Greene herself isn’t sure if she got expelled or not.
These kind of muddled sideshows are par for the course in a big-tent party. Some may last, others are quickly forgotten. They all leave the Leaders in both parties taking deep breaths, reminding themselves this is the price of wearing the proverbial P.T. Barnum-style top hat, and excusing the constant errant conduct in exchange for one more vote—no matter how problematic.
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