The strained ties between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama stand in sharp contrast with the warm relationship between Netanyahu and Congress, particularly 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.
“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. “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 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 2012 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.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, told JNS 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.