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For generations, it has been an article of faith that Republicans were the party that more staunchly supported Israel. In foreign policy circles, that part of the GOP identity was as hardwired as the slogan of “peace through strength.” To even question Israel was akin to spitting on the graves of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, or in recent years, questioning the GOP base’s loyalty to Donald Trump.
But as the conflict between Israelis and Hamas enters its fifth blood-soaked day, House Republicans are mired in a state of stasis so serious that the chamber cannot pass even the most basic pieces of legislation, let alone any aid package for Israel.
The House of Representatives has been without a speaker for nearly a week, since all of the Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted to dump Kevin McCarthy. The chamber remains stopped in its tracks until Republicans select a new Speaker; none has emerged with the requisite votes, tossing the whole body into a knot so tight that McCarthy is offering himself as a repeat Speaker, days after he announced he wouldn’t vie for the job again.
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The House’s paralysis had been embarrassing for the party and the nation. But now it is on the verge of becoming something else entirely. The Republican Party faces a test of its soul on par with the one presented in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed Congress with the express hopes of forcing lawmakers to set aside Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. In that charged moment, while 147 Republicans effectively sided with the rioters, enough lawmakers recognized the threat posed to themselves, America’s reputation, and the world order itself.
Republicans now face a similar test, one where America’s reputation as an ally who could be trusted to deliver when it counts hangs in the balance. Everyone who has watched Congress closely over the years expects both chambers to agree on a supplemental tranche of cash for Israel without much debate. Yet, without a Speaker of the House in place, such a spending plan cannot come to the floor for a vote. Biden’s team can reprogram some dollars and find unspent reserves elsewhere. They can cajole allies to step in with monies of their own. Biden, as he did again on Tuesday from the White House, can resolutely express American support for Israel. Money? That’s a little tougher to ship without authorization from Congress, and leaders of both parties know it.
“When Congress returns, I’m going to ask them to take urgent action to fund the national security requirements of our critical partners,” Biden said shortly after speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “This is not about party or politics. It’s about the security of our world, the security of the United States of America.”
(Not to let a crisis go to waste, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lagging campaign on Tuesday sent an invitation to hear the 2024 presidential hopeful’s thoughts on the crisis. Those wanting to RSVP to the Wednesday online session were directed to a DeSantis campaign consultant specializing in political fundraising, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by TIME. By contrast, Sen. Tim Scott planned a foreign-policy speech at a D.C. think tank for Tuesday.)
There is an obvious practical need for Republicans to sort out their squabbles. A majority of Americans (55%) have a favorable opinion of Israel, according to Pew Research Center polling from last year. But there’s a clear partisan split that has widened in recent years; Pew finds a 27-point gap between Republicans (71%) and Democrats (44%) when it comes to Israel. Put simply: Leaving Israelis in a lurch at a time of surprise attack, hostages, and potential war crimes is a horrible look for the GOP that, not long ago, invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress as a thumb in the eye of President Barack Obama.
(Democrats, meanwhile, are more split over their feelings; Gallup found in February 2021 that 42% of Democrats sympathized more with the Israelis while 39% pointed to Palestinians. It’s a striking shift from a decade earlier, when Gallup polling found Democrats’ margin of sympathies lay with Israelis over Palestinians by a 2-to-1 margin.)
It was not that long ago (last week, in fact) that a sizable portion of the GOP did not seem too worried about steering the whole U.S. government toward a massive shutdown, due in part to the desire among a large coalition of Republicans and Democrats to send more aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. The Trumpists in the GOP opposed this vehemently, following years of double-speak that intentionally misses the intellectual inconsistencies in how they view American power. McCarthy made an eleventh-hour play to keep the doors of the federal government open for another six weeks with the help of Democrats, but dropped the Pentagon’s ask of $24 billion to keep Ukraine fighting through the end of the year. From the White House, Biden promised allies that money for Kyiv would be in the offing, but just in a different legislative vehicle. The Senate is quietly looking at a year-long package topping $50 billion.
Which brings the conversation back to whether history matters here in the least. U.S. dollars have funded—with varying degrees of courage and cringe—more than a half-century of foreign policy dominance. There have seldom been conflicts where Washington hasn’t puffed up a chest and assessed that what the U.S. allies needed were greenbacks and grit. No one can credibly say all of those have gone well; it doesn’t stretch interpretation to say the only declared war that the U.S. won since World War II was the first Gulf War in 1991.
That leaves both Israel and Ukraine caught in the middle of the GOP’s identity crisis. Until Republicans realize their fate—and the legacy of the party and of the country’s long alliance with Israel—hangs on their infighting, there is little beyond Thoughts and Prayers that Americans can send to Israel to combat Hamas (or to Ukraine to shore up its fight against Putin). If Republicans, whose constituents are some of the most pro-Israel people in the country, cannot get their act together and organize a House org chart so they can help their favorite ally in one of the most urgent periods since its creation, there’s really no denying that the Trumpist-led GOP has drained the party of its global reach and prestige.
It’s not that tricky of a question. Sure, halting the work of government to look inward might play well at a MAGA-tinged campaign rally in an airport hangar with Trump Force One as a backdrop, but that does not exactly inspire an awe of Americans’ resolve and might. Republicans face a moment of deciding if they want to be welcomed with respect in Trump circles or in foreign capitals. The two may well be mutually exclusive if the GOP leaves Israel with outstretched arms and nothing to show for it.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org