Israel can survive US political sterility; Ukraine may be doomed

The Capitol, Washington  credit: Shutterstock
The Capitol, Washington credit: Shutterstock

As votes loom on aid to Israel and Ukraine, polarization in Washington has reached such a pitch that US national interests are being sacrificed to electoral advantage.

If it were possible to choose the timing of an existential war, it would be highly advisable not to wage it in a US election year, especially not in a year in which polarization in US politics has reached new extremes.

Israel and Ukraine are both engaged in wars over their existence precisely in such a year, to the detriment of their standing, and of their funding. It would be hard to find higher degrees of cynicism, even in the ugly political swamp that is Washington. At least some of the players are prepared to sacrifice national interests on the altar of the November elections; or, alternatively, they are apostates when it comes to the very definition of national interests.

The Washington whirligig will reach a climax this week. The two houses of Congress are due to vote on contradictory versions of allocation bills. The rival parties that control each of the houses continue to behave as though they were operating in two separate countries.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives is due to vote on a special allocation to Israel. On the same day, the Senate will vote on a joint allocation to Israel and Ukraine, and for securing the border with Mexico. To become law, every bill in the US must be passed by both houses. The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives has declared the Senate bill virtually dead. We don’t yet know what the Democrats will say in the Senate.

The Republicans control the House of Representatives by a single vote. The Democrats control the Senate by a single vote. The Republican equation is especially complicated, because "a single vote" fails to express sufficiently vividly the dependence of the Republican majority on the radical Republican minority. This minority is prepared to thwart any move that does not coincide with the express or implied wishes of Donald Trump. Trump has made clear that he is not interested in constructive consensus between his party and the White House on the way to the November election. His undisguised interest lies in worsening the general atmosphere of crisis and highlighting the Biden administration’s collection of failures in both domestic and foreign policy.

Domestic and foreign affairs always intersect, but that is especially the case now. The most pressing domestic crisis is the loss of control over the southern border with Mexico, with masses of infiltrators crossing it on their way to the US labor market. The most pressing foreign crisis is the two wars. To that should be added the Chinese military threat to Taiwan.

Back in October, the president asked Congress to approve a $106 billion aid package, to include Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and fortifying the southern border. It was pretty clear from the outset that this was mission impossible. The president linked Israel and Ukraine because he thought, and even said, that they were clearly alike: victims of aggression arising from opposition to their very existence. But he also linked them because he hoped that the Republicans, who are in favor of funds for Israel and of dealing with the border, would agree to include Ukraine.

That might have happened, were it not for the fact that the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives was dependent on the capricious will of the radicals. The latter demonstrated, right on the eve of the war in the Gaza Strip, that they were free of any inhibition. They ousted their party leader Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House, and forced his resignation. He was insufficiently loyal to their ultra-right preferences, which included shutting down the federal government unless the administration would agree to drastic expenditure cuts. The radicals also oppose any aid to Ukraine. Some of them exhibit pro-Russian tendencies.

McCarthy was replaced as speaker by Mike Johnson, who is close to the radicals.

Since then, neither camp has shown much interest in finding a solution. While the Republicans were thinking about Trump and the elections, the Democrats thought about their left wing, which gets upset about any restrictions on immigration. They therefore missed the opportunity to change tactic. It seems that they also misread the motives of the Republican senators. They were surprised to discover that even those who support aid to Ukraine are prepared to sacrifice that aid, or put it in jeopardy, for the sake of making political capital over the Mexican border crisis.

Delaying tactics in the Senate

Speaker of the House of Representatives Johnson has announced that he will propose a standalone bill on aid to Israel in this week. Not only will he propose it, but he will increase the amount by $3 billion, foregoing the Republicans’ earlier intention of tying the aid to Israel to a cut in the budget of the Internal Revenue Service. The Democrats have said that they will refuse to support such a bill. Johnson says he is giving them what they wanted, and that they have no reason to vote against the bill in the Senate. The legislation requires approval by both houses.

This will present many Democrats with a dilemma. Although there is unrest within the party over military support for Israel, most of the Democratic members of Congress still stand by Israel’s side. If the leader of the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, a Jew from New York State, allows a vote on the House of Representatives’ bill, it would seem that it will find enough supporters from both parties. Almost all the Republicans (48 out of 49) will vote in favor of it. Probably only ten Democrats (out of 51) will vote against. These are the ten who voted three weeks ago in favor of a demand that the administration should make additional aid to Israel conditional on it meeting conditions for respect of human rights in the Gaza Strip.

But that isn’t necessarily what will happen. It’s possible that the bill won’t be raised in the Senate at all, because of its detachment from aid to Ukraine. It’s also possible that if it is raised, one of the senators will start a filibuster delaying tactic. It requires 60 out of 100 votes to end a filibuster. If the Democrats decide to oppose a bill that doesn’t include Ukraine, those 60 votes won’t be found.

Ukraine’s disaster

For all that Israel suffers from the polarization in Washington, Ukraine suffers many times more. It’s a bad and bitter situation when support for it depends almost wholly on the Democrats. It was an unpopular Democratic president who initiated the generous aid for Ukraine in the first place, but he did so when the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress. It lost its majority in the House of Representatives at the end of 2022.

Israel can probably rely on the support of Congress, and when it comes to the crunch the Democrats will come round and agree to separating the aid. That is not the case with Ukraine. The previous aid package for Ukraine expired at the end of 2023. The results of failing to renew it are evident on the ground. Ukraine’s fate is now captive to Washington’s political sterility. That sterility should worry every US ally. It means that it’s hard to rely on American support over time; that the principle of continuity, which guided US foreign policy for decades, has been shattered, or at least can no longer be taken for granted.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on February 5, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

The Capitol, Washington  credit: Shutterstock
The Capitol, Washington credit: Shutterstock
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