GOP seeks to injure divided Democrats over Israel

House Republicans are racing this week to put the Israel-Hamas war at center stage on Capitol Hill, a move designed both to unite their warring conference and to highlight the long-standing Democratic divisions over the Israel-Palestine conflict.

GOP leaders are pushing a proposal to reverse President Biden’s recent freeze on the delivery of certain U.S. weapons to Israel, which was adopted to pressure Israeli leaders to take more care in protecting Palestinian civilians amid mounting casualties in the Gaza Strip.

The proposal is likely dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the nation’s most powerful Jewish policymaker, has emerged as one of the sharpest critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his handling of the war on Hamas. House Democratic leadership is urging members to vote against the legislation, arguing that it would place “an unprecedented limitation” on Biden’s executive authority, and the administration said Biden would veto the bill if it lands on his desk.

But some of Israel’s staunchest Democratic allies in the House are likely to support the legislation when it hits the floor later this week — a vote that will showcase internal opposition to Biden’s weapons freeze while lending Republicans some campaign-trail ammunition to accuse Democrats of abandoning America’s closest Middle Eastern ally.

“It’s outrageous,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, told the Fox Business Network on Monday. “The Biden administration is selling out our only democracy in the Middle East, our friend for over 75 years, Israel, just like they did in Afghanistan.”

If the GOP resolution is poised to splinter the Democratic vote, however, the party appears united in criticizing the GOP’s motivations for staging it. Indeed, heading into the vote, even those Democrats likely to support the pro-Israel proposal bashed it as a shameless political ploy.

“They again chose to divide Congress and use Israel, as they have with antisemitism, as a political weapon, and that is bad for everyone, except maybe their candidates,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) told The Hill. “It’s a very unfortunate and unnecessary decision.”

“As an American Jew, I am offended by the politicization and partisan manipulation of these very serious issues,” Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) echoed in a statement.

Despite the joint outrage, Landsman and Goldman — both Jewish, pro-Israel Democrats — are finding themselves on opposite ends of the debate over the Israel bill. Landsman told The Hill “I suspect I will” vote for the legislation, where he will likely be joined by other centrist Democrats, while Goldman warned he will “vote no” on the measure, standing with progressives who are up in arms over the mounting number of humanitarian deaths in the Gaza strip.

This week’s vote isn’t the first time Republican leaders have sought to put a spotlight on Democratic divisions over the Israel-Hamas war.

This time around, however, the issue will flip the script on the political dynamics that have consumed the House in recent weeks, when a handful of conservative hard-liners sought to oust Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) after just six months with the gavel.

Republicans have been virtually united on Israel’s military response to Hamas’s deadly attacks of Oct. 7. Those attacks led to the death of more than 1,100 people and the kidnapping of 250 others, and most Republicans maintain that, given the scale of the attack, Israeli leaders have every right to continue their seek-and-destroy mission against the Hamas militants who conducted the offensive.

“We want to protect as many lives as possible of these civilians, but the problem is that Hamas uses them as shields,” Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) said Monday in an interview with Fox News. “They are a terrorist organization that uses their own people as shields, and so Israel has to defend itself.”

That delicate question — whether Israel’s right of self-defense pardons the soaring casualties in Gaza that have resulted from Israel’s military strikes — is much more fraught in the House Democratic Caucus, where liberal lawmakers have accused Netanyahu of disregarding Palestinian lives to achieve broader goals of Israeli expansion.

The toll has been substantial: More than 35,000 people have been killed in the war since Oct. 7, according to United Nations and Gazan health authorities, representing more than 2 percent of a region where half the population consists of women and children.

Attempting to walk that tightrope, Biden last week warned that the U.S. will stop sending offensive weapons — including bombs and artillery shells — to Israel if its forces invade Rafah, a move that the U.S. and other allies have strongly urged against, but one that Netanyahu has vowed to move forward with. The administration also withheld shipment of 3,500 bombs to Israel.

Biden’s threat came the same week the administration delivered a new report to Congress that said it was “reasonable to assess” Israel has violated international humanitarian law in its handling of the war in Gaza.

The administration’s moves, as expected, won the praise of progressives — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called Biden’s threat “responsible” — and sparked ire from pro-Israel Democrats. Twenty-six Democrats penned a letter to national security adviser Jake Sullivan last week that said they were “deeply concerned” about the message being sent after Biden withheld weapons shipments, and some may support the bill up for consideration this week, which would mark a major rebuke from the president’s party.

“I disagree,” Landsman, who signed the letter, said of Biden’s weapons hold. “It undermines [a potential] cease-fire agreement, the release of the hostages, it potentially undermines the ability to end Hamas’s, you know, military capacity.”

“There are certainly things that the administration has and should continue to do diplomatically, privately,” he added. “But the comments alongside the hold do not help us achieve these things.”

Biden’s shipment pause — and threat of more withholdings — came less than a month after the House passed a foreign aid package that included $26 billion for Israel and global humanitarian aid, the culmination of months of bitter negotiations over the assistance.

Johnson told Politico in an interview after learning of the president’s threat that it was a “complete turn” from what he had been told by top administration officials before the aid package passed and there would be no delay in the assistance, a claim the White House has denied.

“So I hope that’s a senior moment,” Johnson said of Biden’s announcement.

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