Can Paul Ryan create a 'blank slate' and allay House's partisan divide on Israel?
Strained ties between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama in recent years have stood in contrast with a warm relationship between Netanyahu and Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives, which has been controlled by Republicans since 2011.
Under the leadership of former House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House has steadfastly approved pro-Israel legislation such as financial support for the Iron Dome missile defense system and majority opposition (but not enough to override a presidential veto) of the Obama administration-brokered Iran nuclear deal.
Yet internal turmoil has plagued the Republican-led House, leading to a change in leadership with the election of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as the new speaker on Oct. 29.
“This begins a new day in the House of Representatives,” the 45-year-old Ryan, the former vice presidential nominee on Mitt Romney’s ticket, said after a vote by Republicans endorsing his leadership. “We are turning the page.”
In his new position of influence, Ryan faces a number of domestic challenges, ranging from budgets to immigration. He also faces the task of attempting to hold together strong bipartisan support for Israel as the Middle East continues to face unrest and violence.
“Unfortunately what we have seen in recent years is a Republican Party moving in a pro-Israel direction and more ambivalence on the Democratic side,” presidential historian Tevi Troy, who served as White House liaison to the Jewish community under president George W. Bush, told JNS.org. “Even if you look at the Obama administration, you see tensions between the old guard and the younger aides who want to hit Israel harder.”
“So there are some real questions on the Democratic side,” said Troy. “Paul Ryan will be continuing in the tradition of solid pro-Israel speakers—not just Boehner, but also former speaker Newt Gingrich.”
While Boehner’s term as speaker was noted for his strong support of Israel, the Jewish state became an increasingly partisan issue under his watch—especially earlier this year, when Boehner broke from what the White House called “protocol” and invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on the Iran nuclear issue without first consulting Obama. More than 50 Congressional Democrats boycotted Netanyahu’s speech.
“Boehner was very good on Israel, but the Netanyahu speech did rub a lot of people the wrong way,” Troy said. “Paul Ryan could potentially create a blank slate where he can have strong bipartisan support for Israel, which is the place we need to be.”
A prominent face in Washington as head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the House, Ryan is perhaps best-known to most Americans as Romney’s running mate. At the time, many in the pro-Israel community praised Ryan for his strong support of pro-Israel legislation in the House, including his co-sponsorship of a July 2011 bill that opposed “unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state” and his backing of the Palestinian Accountability Act, which imposed restrictions on U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Ryan has also described the late Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee and U.S. House member from New York, as being his mentor. Ryan worked for Kemp as a speechwriter and researcher, and Kemp’s granddaughter was an intern in Ryan’s office.
“It is important to remember that Jack Kemp was his mentor, and [Kemp] was instrumental in forming the modern pro-Israel Republican Party,” Troy said.
Kemp is also remembered by many Jewish Republicans for being the man who allegedly leaked the now-infamous statement by former George H.W. Bush administration secretary of state James Baker, who purportedly said, “F**ck the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.”
“As a result of Jack Kemp, Paul Ryan grew up in the pro-Israel GOP of the 1990s. Not the more mixed GOP of the 50s, 60s, and into the 70s [that produced leaders like James Baker]. He is a child of the very pro-Israel Republican Party,” said Troy.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, told JNS.org that Ryan has the “potential to be a great speaker of the House” who will continue to “work to strengthen our relationship with Israel and pursue an effective foreign policy in the Middle East.”
Israel is featured prominently on Ryan’s Congressional website in the section on “Defense and Homeland Security.” Ryan states that America “has no better friend in the Middle East than the nation of Israel” and that he considers the Jewish state a “valuable ally against Islamic extremism and terrorism.” While Ryan tacitly supports a two-state solution, he believes that “real peace will require Palestinians to recognize that Israel has a right to exist” and cites the Palestinian terror group Hamas as one of the main impediments to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Notably, Ryan points to his co-sponsorship of H.R.938: United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014 as one of his pro-Israel achievements.
Like virtually all Republicans, Ryan is also opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, saying in a statement shortly after the framework agreement was signed in April 2014 that the pact “may slow down Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, but it clearly will not prevent it.”
In a letter to Obama in September, Ryan warned the president not to lift any unnecessary financial penalties against Iran. Ryan expressed concern that the White House would lay off some of the tax penalties for companies seeking to do business in Iran after initial sanctions are lifted.
“The idea that a nuclear Iran can be deterred is unrealistic,” Ryan wrote to the president. “Instead of opening pathways for Iran’s nuclear and terrorist agenda, your administration should work with Congress to strengthen sanctions regimes until Iran changes its behavior. ”
Ryan also was supportive of Netanyahu’s address to Congress on the Iran nuclear threat earlier this year, saying on the NBC network’s “Meet the Press” program that he “absolutely” backed Boehner’s decision to invite Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress without consulting Obama beforehand.
“I don’t know if I would say it’s antagonizing. I think we would like to hear from the leader of Israel on his thoughts on Iran,” Ryan said.
Rep. Zeldin criticized Democratic members of the House “who tried to politicize” Netanyahu’s address to Congress and expressed hope that during Ryan’s term as speaker, such partisanship on Israel will be put aside.
“Standing with our strongest ally Israel should never be a partisan issue,” Zeldin told JNS.org. “It’s important that together, as members of Congress with a new speaker, we work across the aisle in a bipartisan effort to strengthen our relationship with our nation’s greatest ally, Israel.”
Former White House Jewish liaison Troy believes that Ryan will not only face the growing sense of ambivalence from some Democrats on Israel, but also a broader ideological divide.
“There is a deep ideological divide,” Troy said. “Are we a country that is supportive of Israel and recognizes that when there are terrorist attacks in Israel, we shouldn’t just say ‘we denounce all violence,’ like some Democrats like presidential candidate Martin O’Malley have recently said, but instead say that there are people who are terrorists with knifes who are blindly and indiscriminately killing innocent people?”
“That is a distinction worth making,” he added. “That is not a partisan divide, but an ideological divide. There are fundamental disagreements over the direction of our country.”