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‘Congress is Going to Have to Steel Ourselves’
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‘Congress is Going to Have to Steel Ourselves’

Lawmakers are backing Israel in next phase of conflict.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) wears an Israeli Defense Force uniform as he arrives at a House Republican caucus meeting at the Longworth House Office Building on October 13, 2023 in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Israeli government hadn’t even collected all the bodies of the more than 1,300 people slain in Hamas’ horrifying terror attacks over the weekend before American progressives and international human rights groups cautioned the country to be restrained in its response.

This isn’t a new dynamic for Israel. As my colleague Kevin argued earlier this week, no other country reeling from extreme violence and hatred—like what Hamas carried out last weekend—would face such high-profile, immediate calls for a ceasefire. Some people pushing Israel to stand down are brazenly antisemitic. Others are reacting to photos and videos of carnage in Gaza—some accompanied by misinformation, some from entirely different conflicts.

But there is very real carnage in Gaza, too, and it will likely escalate into a brutal humanitarian crisis. As Israel bombs Hamas sites and equipment, innocent people are being hurt and killed—sometimes because of faulty intelligence, other times because of the sheer density of the enclave, and often because Hamas views Palestinian civilians as some of its greatest military assets, with its leaders all too willing to use them as human shields. People in the Gaza Strip are facing dire conditions, prompting plenty of good-faith reservations about what comes next in this war.

The urban warfare required to end Hamas will be an immense challenge for Israel’s armed forces, as David French writes in this excellent piece for the New York Times. Gaza is densely populated, and roughly half of its more than 2 million people are children. Most Palestinian civilians aren’t able to flee because Egypt is keeping a corridor that refugees could use shut tight. And even as Israeli officials ask residents of the northern half of Gaza to evacuate to the south ahead of a military operation, Hamas has told people to stay in place. Some reports indicate Hamas has forced those trying to escape back into their homes. There are reasons for the American government to be worried, also; between 500 and 600 U.S. citizens are estimated to live in the Gaza Strip.

Members of the U.S. Congress understand those facts, and know, based on previous such conflicts, that they’ll face pressure to back away from Israel as casualties mount. But lawmakers from both parties emphasize there is no comparison between democratic Israel and jihadist Hamas, which oppresses its own people. They broadly agree Israel has a right to defend itself—and they want to see Hamas destroyed, even though the cost will be high.

“Israel has no choice but to seek the complete eradication of Hamas in Gaza,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican. “There simply is no diplomatic solution or ‘measured response’ available. This tragically necessary effort will come at a horrifying price.”

And Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat from Massachusetts who supports Israel, said casualties in Gaza shouldn’t lead to moral equivocation: “We have hard weeks ahead, and Congress is going to have to steel ourselves.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican and Marine Corps veteran, noted Israeli Defense Forces have proven they can go to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilian casualties, sometimes even using dummy rounds to alert civilians in buildings they’re about to hit with live rounds. “But it’s war. It’s impossible to minimize civilian casualties down to zero,” Gallagher told The Dispatch in an interview on Thursday. “Israel is going to have to systematically dismantle Hamas. In so doing, I’m sure they will go to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties. But as the old saying goes, war is hell. Hamas should not have brought this upon themselves with an unprovoked terrorist attack against the Jewish state.”

That reality doesn’t mean American officials have given up trying to limit the violence. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting with leaders in Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates this week in an effort to find ways to protect refugees and stop the conflict from spreading.

Rep. Dan Goldman, a New York Democrat who was visiting Israel when Hamas struck, affirmed that approach, telling The Dispatch that Israel’s neighbors should work to establish humanitarian pathways for refugees, because the welfare of Palestinians can’t solely be Israel’s responsibility.

Goldman also differed with progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who said this week that Israel’s decision to cut off food and water deliveries to Gaza is a “serious violation of international law.” Hamas has redirected international humanitarian supplies to terrorism in the past, Goldman pointed out, leaving Palestinians more vulnerable to suffering. “At this point, in order to defend itself from further terrorist attacks and in order to get the hostages back, Israel needs to take every measure that it can,” he said.

The war has highlighted divisions among Democrats. Some progressives in the party who range from skeptical to downright antagonistic toward Israel may push for constraints on future military assistance for the country, as they have in the past. But Rep. Ritchie Torres, a progressive from New York, said those members advocating a ceasefire represent only a “visible, vocal minority” of the Democratic Party.

“We should support Israel not only in moments of comfort and convenience, but also in moments of challenge,” Torres told The Dispatch. “The wretchedness of war is a tragedy. The death and destruction that war brings is a tragedy. No one should ever deny or downplay the tragedy of war, but it must be remembered that the aggressor here is not Israel, it is Hamas. And Israel can no longer afford to play a game of whack-a-mole in which it momentarily defeats Hamas in the present only to see Hamas reconstitute itself in the future and murder more Israelis.”

Torres said Israel was the first foreign country he visited, and he’s been there five times. He has met people there who are traumatized by terror attacks and constant exchanges of rocketfire. 

“In Israel, there’s never truly peace. There’s only the quiet before the storm,” he said. “And as Americans, we have to recognize that by comparison, we live in an ivory tower. We know a level of safety and security that Israelis have never known. And so instead of passing judgment, we should have empathy for the plight of the Jewish state.”

Republicans in Disarray

In case you haven’t noticed, Republicans don’t have a functioning House majority.

Since Democrats joined a handful of far-right Republicans to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week, the chaos within the GOP conference has only grown more intense. Members are locked in aimless meeting after aimless meeting, and animosity is mounting as they struggle to select a new speaker of the House. Legislation has ground to a total halt, and the clock on funding the government is still ticking. A short-term spending bill runs out on November 17.

In a meeting on Wednesday, the GOP conference briefly selected House Majority Leader Steve Scalise as its nominee for the gavel. Within hours, however, it quickly became clear—for a number of reasons, ranging from his previous support for spending bills conservatives didn’t like to his cancer diagnosis—that he didn’t have the votes to win on the floor. The Louisiana Republican dropped out of the race on Thursday night after an hours-long meeting with members. Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Committee chairman who initially lost to Scalise in Wednesday’s conference meeting, is running for the job again.

Jordan has the backing of former President Donald Trump, McCarthy, and some of McCarthy’s most stalwart critics, including Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who first triggered the former speaker’s ouster. Just like Scalise, though, Jordan doesn’t yet appear to have enough votes. Some moderate members have indicated they’ll oppose him, saying they were offended by how Jordan handled losing to Scalise in this week’s conference election.

According to Scalise ally Rep. Ann Wagner, Jordan told Scalise that he’d only give him one chance to win enough votes for speaker on the House floor. “And when you go down,” Jordan allegedly said, “you will nominate me.” Jordan’s office denied the comment.

Rep. Austin Scott, a conservative Georgia Republican, threw his hat into the ring Friday with the ambitious goal of leading “a House that functions.” Scott is notable as the only GOP speaker candidate thus far who didn’t vote on January 6, 2021 to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, he may find support among defense hawks who are wary of Jordan’s approach to Ukraine aid. “When I woke up this morning, I had no intention of doing this,” he said Friday. “We haven’t done any preparation or anything.”

GOP lawmakers are meeting again today to try to find consensus. Some members have talked about other candidate options. Names include Majority Whip Tom Emmer, Oklahoma Rep. Kevin Hern, and acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. Some centrist Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, hope to see pragmatic Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, come out on top. McCarthy is also lurking in the wings; it’s an open secret he’d love a chance for a comeback.

Some members have also eyed giving McHenry authorities of the speakership, like being able to bring bills to the floor, but only as a temporary measure. “If we can do it in a constitutional manner, I think there’s merit to it,” Rep. Blake Moore, a Utah Republican, said Thursday.

Others, frustrated with the impasse, are threatening to turn to Democrats.

“A bipartisan way may be the only answer,” Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska told CBS News. “Because we have eight to 10 people that do not want to be part of the governing majority,” 

Another representative helpfully suggested that each member write down their top 10 choices for the speakership, and the GOP conference chair could tally them up and report the results, and, at this point, that’s actually not a bad idea. But such a tally would be incomplete, as several lawmakers are skipping today’s meeting, already having flown home for the weekend. We’ll take a cue from them and return to this next week, when Republicans might have more of their act together.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.