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Five questions for Washington amid bloodshed in Israel and Gaza

The world is reeling as it watches events in Israel and Gaza.

As of Monday afternoon, around 800 Israelis had been confirmed dead as a result of Hamas’s surprise attack. Around 700 Palestinians had been killed in response.

The crisis has no immediate end in sight. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that “though Israel didn’t start this war, Israel will finish it.”

Netanyahu also contended, in relation to Hamas, that Israel “will exact a price that will be remembered by them and Israel’s other enemies for decades to come.”

For its part, Hamas said that it would execute hostages — and broadcast the executions — in response to future bombings of civilian housing by Israel.

The grim situation has big implications for American politics, too.

Beyond the devastating human toll in the Middle East, here are some of the biggest questions confronting Washington. 

Was Iran behind the attack?

This is one of the biggest questions. It has not yet been answered in a definitive way.

Iran is a key supporter of Hamas, and of several other Palestinian armed groups.

But backing for the overall cause does not necessarily translate into knowledge of the specifics of the plan to invade Israel.

The most concrete report of Iranian involvement so far came in a Wall Street Journal story on Sunday.

The Journal’s reporters wrote that Iranian security officials had given “the green light” for the attack at a recent meeting in Beirut. 

The story also included the claim that “officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps had worked with Hamas since August” to conceive the invasion.

The Journal’s most dramatic claims were sourced to unnamed “senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah.” But it also included denials, both from a Hamas official and from a spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, that there had been coordination.

Notably, neither the American government nor the Israeli government has stated definitively that Iran was involved. 

A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Force (IDF) told Politico on Monday that “we have no evidence or proof” Iran was behind the attack, though he added that Israel was certain “the Iranians were not surprised.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, “We have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack, but there is certainly a long relationship.”

The question of Iranian involvement is so vital because, were it to be proven, both Israel and the United States would be obligated to take some kind of action against Tehran — which in turn could enlarge the conflict.

How big are the political dangers for President Biden?

Republican presidential candidates have been lining up to bash President Biden for what they contend is his weakness on the international stage.

In particular, they’ve been condemning the deal reached in August that unfroze $6 billion in Iranian funds in return for the release of five Americans.

Former President Trump said Biden had whittled away at Middle East peace “at a far more rapid pace than anyone thought possible.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote on social media that “Iran has helped fund this war against Israel and Joe Biden’s policies that have gone easy on Iran have helped fill their coffers.”

And former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Blinken’s claim that the $6 billion could not have been used in the attack — since it is restricted to humanitarian purposes — was “irresponsible.”

On one level, the attack on Israel plays into the Republican attack line that Democrats in general, and Biden in particular, are too soft with American adversaries. 

Versions of this argument have been used in relation to China, as well as Iran, throughout the Biden presidency.

Still, there is no certainty that voters will blame Biden for events on the other side of the world that even Israel’s vaunted security apparatus failed to see coming.

In addition, Biden’s experience can appeal to voters in moments of international crisis.

His response to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and the way he assembled a coalition to resist it, won plaudits in the months afterward.

Could the conflict affect aid to Ukraine?

Events in Israel and Gaza could have an effect on the war in Ukraine in at least two ways.

In big-picture terms, there are questions about whether any increased American commitments to Israel could sap American public will for aid to Ukraine. 

Public support for Ukraine’s effort to repel the Russian invasion has dipped over time. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week, only a narrow plurality of adults — 41 percent to 35 percent — supported America continuing to arm Ukraine. In May, a poll from the same organizations found Americans favored arming Ukraine by a wider, 17-point margin.

It seems plausible that requests for additional aid to Israel could make Americans even less willing to countenance heavy spending for Ukraine.

However, in terms of the congressional process, there is already some talk about putting both aid to Israel and to Ukraine into any new spending deal. 

Such a deal will need to be agreed upon by Nov. 17, otherwise the government will shut down. 

Putting aid for both nations into a must-pass package could be one way for advocates of such aid to overcome resistance.

How will it impact Congress and the race for Speaker?

It is a bad look, by any reasonable standard, for the House to be without a Speaker in the middle of an international crisis.

Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) holds tightly circumscribed powers, limited mainly to facilitating the election of a proper replacement for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was toppled as Speaker last week.

In essence, the situation leaves the House frozen. 

The immediate effects are more symbolic than substantive — for example, it makes it more cumbersome for the House to pass a resolution condemning Hamas.

If the House were to spend prolonged time without a Speaker, it would hamper the fulfillment of any Israeli request for supplemental help, beyond the $3 billion-plus of aid the U.S. already provides.

The lack of a Speaker is also one more example of the dysfunction that has caused the nation’s politics to seize up in recent years.

The net effect could nudge House Republicans to select a Speaker more quickly than they otherwise would do this week. 

A vote could come as soon as Wednesday, with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as the only two declared candidates.

McCarthy has become a bit of a wild card, however. 

Twice on Monday — during an interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show and at a Capitol Hill press conference — he held the door ajar to a possible return to the Speakership, even while stopping well short of announcing a candidacy.

Could the Jewish American vote shift anytime soon?

Republican attacks on Biden play well with GOP primary voters, but it’s a lot less clear whether they will bring about any major shift in the Jewish vote.

Jewish Americans have traditionally been a strong pillar of Democratic support. There is little evidence that increased GOP efforts to win Jewish voters have had a major impact.

A Pew Research Center survey published in 2021 found that 71 percent of American Jews identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 26 percent favor Republicans.

Jewish voters chose Biden over Trump by almost 40 points in 2020 — 69 percent to 30 percent — according to a voter analysis commissioned by The Associated Press and Fox News. The 69 percent Biden won was exactly the same figure as that won by then-President Obama in his 2012 reelection win over GOP nominee Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

It’s possible, of course, that the seismic shock of the Hamas attack could force some kind of realignment, especially if new details emerge that are damning of the Biden administration.

Still, Jewish support for Democrats has proven resilient for decades.

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