Senate to Vote on Potential Freeze to Israel Aid as Democrats Question Conduct of War
"A measure by Bernie Sanders would order a report on whether Israel had committed human rights violations. It stands little chance of passage but reflects some Democrats’ resistance to providing unfettered aid.
When Hamas unleashed a bloody attack against Israel in October, there was a swift and strong bipartisan clamor of support in Congress for the United States to spare no expense in backing a robust military response by the Jewish state. One hundred days later, that consensus on Capitol Hill shows signs of fraying, as left-wing Democrats alarmed by the rising human toll of the war in Gaza press to limit aid to Israel or impose strict conditions on it.
The effort has divided Democrats and spurred an intensive lobbying countereffort by pro-Israel groups. It will reach a peak on Tuesday, when the Senate votes on a resolution that would freeze all U.S. security aid to Israel unless the State Department produces a report within 30 days examining whether the country committed human rights violations in its conduct of the war. If the Biden administration misses the deadline, the aid would be restored once Congress receives the report, or takes separate votes to ensure the assistance continues uninterrupted.
The measure, forced to the floor by Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, has little chance of passing given opposition by Republicans and Democrats. But it is only one of a raft of measures that progressives in the Senate have proposed in recent weeks that reflect their uneasiness with Israel’s conduct of the war and raise questions about whether and under what circumstances the United States would send a fresh infusion of funding to back the country.
“There is growing concern among the American people and in Congress that what Israel is doing now is not a war against Hamas, but a war against the Palestinian people,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. “That with American military aid, children are starving to death, is to me — I mean, I just don’t know what adjectives I can use. It’s disgraceful. And I think I’m not the only one who feels that.”
President Biden in October requested a sweeping emergency national security package including roughly $14 billion to back Israel in the conflict, but debate on that measure has largely focused on the much bigger sum earmarked for Ukraine. Many Republicans are opposed to sending more money to Kyiv, and others have insisted that it must come with an immigration crackdown at the U.S. border with Mexico that has been the subject of painstaking negotiations.
But the aid to Israel is hitting its own snags, as the military campaign in Gaza drags on and the count of Palestinians killed surpasses 24,000, most of them civilians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
The mounting death toll — along with the road blocks Israel has imposed on getting aid to civilians trapped under bombardment — has inspired protests in the streets of U.S. cities and charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice. It has also caused hand-wringing in the Biden administration, as senior officials push Israel to wind down military operations and allow more aid in, while maintaining a public posture of support for the war.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen Senate Democrats, almost all from the party’s left wing, have signed on to various measures to limit or place conditions on security aid to Israel. One would require a guarantee by the president that any weapons provided would be used in accordance with U.S. and international law.
Mr. Sanders, who last month voted against sending unconditional security aid to Israel, has described his resolution as a reasonable and conservative measure.
Other senators backing the resolution have argued that it should not be controversial to seek accountability in a deadly war.
“It asks important questions about the conduct of the war and the rights of civilians,” Senator Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, said of Mr. Sanders’s resolution in a statement. “Congress and the American people deserve answers to these questions.”
Still, even some Democrats who are concerned about Israel’s actions are wary of Mr. Sanders’s approach. Congress has not invoked the arcane human rights authority that Mr. Sanders’s resolution relies on since 1976.
“I’m inclined against it,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, told reporters last week, explaining that he was focusing his efforts elsewhere.
Mr. Kaine is leading a push to preserve Congress’s ability to review arms transfers to Israel, which would be waived under the emergency national security spending bill now being discussed. He is also backing a bid by Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, to mandate that the president ensure that countries receiving U.S. military assistance — including Israel — use the weapons in accordance with U.S. law, international humanitarian law and the laws of armed conflict.
Senate Republicans are expected to vote against the measure; their leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has called the idea of placing restrictions on military aid to Israel “ridiculous.” And most Democrats, including Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, have also been reluctant to back efforts to force the Biden administration to impose conditions on aid to Israel as a matter of law.
“There’s no question that the administration can and should continue to push for reduced civilian casualties and more humanitarian assistance, along with a possible pause that will enable return of the hostages,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “But right now, Israel is locked in a life-or-death struggle against a terrorist organization sworn to annihilate it and the Jewish people, and I believe we must maintain both military and humanitarian assistance.”
It is not yet clear whether either Mr. Kaine’s or Mr. Van Hollen’s proposals will receive votes, as the national security spending bill remains stalled while the border security negotiations drag on without resolution.
But Democratic proponents suggest they are prepared to hold up the measure unless their proposals are considered.
“In order to get a bill the size of the supplemental through the Senate, our support and cooperation will be necessary,” Mr. Van Hollen said in an interview, adding that there was growing interest among Senate Democrats in his proposal. “We have lots of leverage when it comes to the supplemental — we will insist that we have a chance to vote on this.”
Pro-Israel groups are lobbying intensely against the proposals to put conditions on aid to Israel, as well as Mr. Sanders’s resolution. And the Biden administration has resisted congressional efforts to place stipulations on aid. Officials have also argued that Mr. Sanders’s resolution is ill-timed and unnecessary.
“It’s unworkable, quite frankly,” John F. Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement on Sunday. “The Israelis have indicated they are preparing to transition their operations to a much lower intensity. And we believe that transition will be helpful both in terms of reducing civilian casualties, as well as increasing humanitarian assistance.”
But Israel’s congressional critics are skeptical of those claims, pointing to continued bombing in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The Biden administration’s recent use of emergency powers to bypass Congress and speed weapons to Israel has also irked many of the lawmakers pressing for statutory changes.
“There’s a huge amount of frustration that despite what we ask for, we’re not seeing significant results,” Mr. Van Hollen said. He argued that the administration’s simultaneous calls for Israel to reduce casualties while supplying its military with weapons sent “a very mixed signal.”
Mr. Schumer has yet to commit to allowing a vote on any of the Israel-related amendments to the national security bill, or comment publicly about Mr. Sanders’s resolution.
“There are discussions happening among members of our caucus with the administration on the best path forward,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “I am happy to review what they come up with.”