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Shockwaves from Israel-Hamas war disrupt US politics

Israel’s war with Hamas following the militant group’s unprecedented and deadly weekend attack is also sending shockwaves through domestic US politics.

The crisis is creating new headaches for the Biden administration, sharpening the focus on the current turmoil in Congress and threatening to add an extra level of unpredictability to the 2024 US elections.

And while the American public tends to pay slight attention to events abroad, the horrifying images of civilian deaths from the Middle East – and the news that Americans are among the casualties – ensures that this story will grab the national attention.

The blame game begins
Already Joe Biden’s critics are lining up to place the blame for violence in Israel squarely at the president’s feet.

They’ve accused Iran of masterminding the attack and say that US policies toward that nation, including allowing it to increase oil sales and have access to $6bn (£4.9bn) in frozen assets as part of a deal to achieve the release of some jailed American citizens, was a signal of American “weakness”.

A senior administration official on Saturday said that was a “ridiculous charge,” adding that only non-Iranian third-party groups have had access to the $6bn, which can only be spent on humanitarian aid.

Former president Donald Trump, in a speech in New Hampshire on Monday, pledged to reinstate all US sanctions on Iran and reimpose a US travel ban on all “terror-afflicted” majority Muslim nations.

Mr Trump pointed to his successful negotiation of the Abraham Accords between Israel and two Persian Gulf states as an example of what had been a trend toward peace in the Middle East.

Some experts, however, have said that by bypassing the Palestinian issue, those accords – and the recent Biden administration push to normalise diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia – may have been a contributing factor in the Hamas attack.

One of Mr Trump’s presidential rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also accused Democratic administrations of being too soft on Iran.

“Ultimately, this was an attack by the Iranians,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said. “US policy under both Biden and Obama, they just had rose-coloured glasses with respect to Iran.”

While the lion’s share of Republican criticism was directed at Mr Biden, the attack on Israel also exposed some fault lines within the party – particularly on the changing views among conservatives on the merits of the kind of interventionist foreign policy that was long a hallmark of Republican presidencies.

Former vice-president Mike Pence used the moment to launch one of his most direct critiques of what he said was a nativist and isolationist worldviews of some of his Republican rivals.

“It’s absolutely essential that we call out leaders in the Republican Party,” he said in a statement released by his campaign. “Voices of appeasement like Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis, I believe have run contrary to the tradition in our party where America is the leader of the free world.”

A House divided
On Monday morning, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy joined in with the Republican chorus blaming Mr Biden’s policies for laying the groundwork for the attack.

Mr McCarthy was a victim of an uprising among right-wing conservatives, and his ousting has essentially frozen the chamber until Republicans can unite behind a new speaker – a process that could take at least several days more.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, the mastermind of the move against the then-speaker, dismissed accusations that his actions may have made it more difficult for the US Congress to come to Israel’s aid, noting that America gives Israel $3bn (£2.45bn) in military support every year.

“There is no ask from Israel that we are unable to meet because it’s going to take us a few days to pick a new speaker,” he said, adding that the world doesn’t spend much time thinking about Mr McCarthy’s political career.

It was an opportunity for Mr McCarthy’s supporters to get another round of digs at a colleague they now thoroughly revile.

“I look at the world and all the threats that are out there,” Michael McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Sunday. “What kind of message are we sending to our adversaries when we can’t govern, when we’re dysfunctional, when we don’t even have a Speaker of the House?”

The Biden administration has said there is no immediate need for a congressionally approved aid package for Israel. But two senior officials told US senators during a briefing today that new assistance should be included in a legislative package that also contains continued support for Ukraine.

Given the resistance to additional Ukraine funding among some Republicans, however, it remains to be seen whether such a move would make such an aid package more likely to pass – or less. A social media post earlier today by Republican Senator Josh Hawley seemed to suggest the latter.

“Israel is facing existential threat,” he wrote. “Any funding for Ukraine should be redirected to Israel immediately.”

Widespread Democratic support – for now
If Republican fault lines have been exposed by the Israel crisis, the same cannot be said for divisions on the left – at least for the moment.

While the Democratic Party has traditionally been vocal advocates for Israel, that support has ebbed in recent years as the party has moved to the left and its criticism of the right-wing policies of Israel’s Likud-led government – including its aggressive expansion of settlements in the occupied territories – has intensified.

A January 2023 Gallup Poll showed more Democrats sympathised with Palestinians (49%) than Israelis (38%) for the first time in the poll’s 22-year history.

The ferocity and indiscriminate nature of the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians, however, has obscured these divisions.

While some far-left groups have rallied to express backing for the Palestinians, mainstream Democrats have been vocal in their support for Israel and quick to denounce signs of dissent from their side.

Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri, two of the more outspoken critics of Israel in the House of Representatives, offered sympathies for Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties while calling for the end of US aid to Israel. Those comments prompted condemnation from several of their fellow Democrats.

“It sickens me that while Israelis clean the blood of their family members shot in their homes, they believe Congress should strip US funding to our democratic ally and allow innocent civilians to suffer,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.Ms Bush and Ms Tlaib are in the minority of their party for the moment. Bernie Sanders, one of the leaders of the progressive left, issued a statement on Saturday saying he absolutely condemned “the horrifying attack”.

“There is no justification for this violence, and innocent people on both sides will suffer hugely because of it,” he wrote on social media.

As headlines about Israeli civilian deaths are replaced by coverage of what could be a lengthy Israeli ground campaign in the Gaza Strip, however, the sentiment among Democrats could begin to shift to where it was earlier this year.

The situation in the Middle East has shifted dramatically in a matter of days. Given the existing cross-currents and partisan divisions inside the US, the domestic political dynamics of the current crisis are likely to be equally unpredictable.

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