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Debt-limit bill sparks concern over Israel support



JTA – As the 2024 election gets into gear, both Republicans and Democrats are again using Israel as a wedge issue.

A lot has changed in both countries since the last presidential election, but in the halls of Congress, the battle over Israel is playing out in familiar ways.

Republicans have accused President Joe Biden of snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he has yet to invite to the White House amid policy disagreements. Democrats, meanwhile, say that the Republicans’ proposed spending cuts endanger foreign aid to Israel.

And leaders of both parties have indicated that, even amid a high-states fight over the debt ceiling, displaying support for Israel remains a priority.

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House speaker, took time this week to lead a bipartisan delegation to Israel, where he addressed the Knesset.

That was just a week after Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic minority leader from New York, led his own delegation to the country and laid a wreath to mark its Memorial Day. Also visiting the country recently to demonstrate his support was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to launch his bid for the GOP (Grand Old Party) presidential nomination this month.

McCarthy’s speech in Israel’s parliament was nonpartisan, but his remarks to reporters were less so. McCarthy told Israel Hayom, a right-leaning tabloid, that Biden was wrong not to invite Netanyahu to Washington, saying Netanyahu had waited “too long” since returning to office in December.

“If that doesn’t happen, I’ll invite the prime minister to come meet the House,” McCarthy said. “He’s a dear friend, as a prime minister of a country that we have our closest ties with.”

Amir Ohana, the speaker of Knesset and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, had hinted that his invitation to McCarthy was a sort of rebuke to Biden. The United States president has indicated that he’s not interested in seeing Netanyahu until the Israeli leader limits the influence of his far-right coalition partners and walks back his controversial effort to weaken Israel’s judiciary. Biden has said the judicial overhaul would undercut Israel’s democracy.

As McCarthy was getting ready to leave Israel, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a senior Democrat, was telling colleagues that Republican budget manoeuvres were imperilling US assistance to Israel.

Wasserman Schultz’s warning came after House Republicans, voting on party lines, passed a debt-limit bill that would curb and then reduce government spending. What, exactly, the bill proposes to cut and keep is not clear. But Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish representative from South Florida, said the bill’s language mandates cuts across all non-defence spending, including foreign aid. That means, she said, that the $3.3 billion (R60.8 billion) Israel gets annually in defence assistance could be reduced by as much as $726 million (R13,4 million).

“That puts Israel’s security at risk,” Wasserman Schultz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Without any specificity or explicit protection, we can’t be sure Israel is safe.”

Legislation is needed to lift the amount the government is allowed to borrow, or it could risk a default on its debt.

On Sunday, a McCarthy spokesperson told JTA that security assistance to Israel would remain untouched, and McCarthy made the pledge explicit in his Knesset speech the following day. “As long as I’m speaker, America will continue to support full funding for security assistance in Israel,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz hasn’t been the only one to seek assurances that aid to Israel would be left alone. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby group, has also asked that Israel cuts be taken off the table.

“We’re continuing our work with congressional leaders to ensure full funding of security assistance to Israel without additional conditions,” Marshall Wittmann, AIPAC’s spokesman, told JTA. “This is a top legislative priority, as it’s in the security interests of the US and our ally, Israel, and we’re pleased that many members of Congress have already written to senior members of the appropriations committee in support of this funding.”

Wasserman Schultz said that though she welcomed McCarthy’s reassurance on Israel, she worried that Republican cuts could have an impact on foreign aid overall. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have also said that foreign aid generally – not just to Israel – is essential to preserving US influence internationally.

“Words matter, but the actions in the House Republican Default on America Bill that passed the House doesn’t match the rhetoric,” she said in a text message on Monday, using a derisive name for the Republican bill. “But even if his caucus allows him to follow through on those words, the drastic cuts called for in the Default on America Act would decimate support for our partners and diplomatic efforts in the region, and undercut Israel’s overall security.”

Asked in Jerusalem about the debt-limit negotiations, McCarthy said that in at least one respect, he and the prime minister were in the same boat.

“The president still hasn’t talked to me,” he said, just hours before Biden invited him to the White House to launch debt-limit negotiations. “I’m a little like Netanyahu.”

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