WASHINGTON ― Senate Democrats are scattered on the question of putting new conditions on a package of billions of dollars in aid that Congress hopes to approve for Israel amid its war against Hamas.
Some, like Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), say they oppose trying to “micromanage what Israel does on the battlefield.” Others, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, say they know that people in America and around the world are “very dispirited” by the number of Palestinian civilians who have been killed in Israeli attacks pummeling the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based.
“We’re talking about 14,000 people in a seven-week period, 70% of whom are women and children,” Sanders told reporters on Tuesday. “Yes, Israel absolutely has a right to defend itself from a barbaric attack. But there are ways to do that.”
He continued: “Then the question is, do we simply provide a blank check and say, ‘Hey, yeah, we are concerned about it, but here’s the money, do what you want to do’? Or do you say, ‘Hey, if you want our money, you have to listen to our conditions’?”
But even Sanders, easily the most prominent progressive on Capitol Hill, hedged when asked if he supports writing conditions into the forthcoming aid package.
“Let’s take it one step at a time,” he said, before turning to leave.
For all the debate over potential conditions on the aid package ― which is expected to pass in the next few weeks ― the reality is that Congress is highly unlikely to include any new restrictions on funding for Israel, a longtime U.S. ally.
Republicans don’t support the idea at all. Democrats largely don’t, either. Among the handful of lawmakers discussing conditions, there’s no agreement on what the new requirements would be, though Sanders has offered a road map. And this political reality doesn’t even take into account the impact of imposing new conditions on foreign aid in statute, a process that would take months if not years to have a demonstrable effect.
Still, some Democrats and outside observers say the most significant, realistic thing that Congress can do to influence Israel’s war against Gaza ― and try to save lives ― is already happening: It’s that lawmakers are even talking about the possibility of conditions on aid.
“We’re doing it already,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a senior member of the foreign relations committee, referring to senators trying to persuade Israel to behave more humanely.
Asked if he thinks the Israeli government is listening when senators air concerns about civilian casualties or the need for more humanitarian aid for Gaza, he emphatically said yes.
“They are paying attention,” Kaine said. “I am always impressed by the Israelis. During my time here, they pay very close attention to what happens in this place.”
Blumenthal, one of several Democratic senators who met privately with senior Israeli Defense Forces officials in the Capitol on Monday night, similarly said he thinks Israeli officials are heeding the advice they’re hearing from senators and from President Joe Biden.
“I’ve urged both publicly and privately that they take additional efforts to minimize civilian casualties, which they are doing,” he argued, pointing to the pause in Israel’s offensive, which has allowed for a release of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, as well as more humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gazans. Blumenthal speculated that the country will change its approach once it resumes its campaign, as it has pledged to do.
“If bombing is resumed, it will take steps like avoiding the use of 2000-pound bombs,” Blumenthal said. “I think they will bomb less frequently. And I think they’ll take steps to try to protect civilians, just based on my general conversations.”
The ultimate effect of the conditions conversation could be a reminder about the legal conditions that already exist for foreign countries receiving U.S. military support ― and how Israel has traditionally been exempt from those standards.
The country receives more than $3 billion in American military aid annually, with special treatment like the immediate transfer of that money each year instead of receiving it in portions to cover specific weapons purchases, and the right to earn interest on that grant. Israel has been the largest recipient of such U.S. support since World War II.
“There’s nothing we put in any budgetary bill that just says, ‘Here’s a dollar amount, you get it.’ Right?” Kaine said. “Everything has expectations, restrictions, use it for this, use it for that ... We’re going to do an [Israel] aid package for sure. We’re going to put expectations on it as we would for other bills.”
‘A Signaling Question’
Following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack that killed 1,200 Israelis, Israel’s retaliatory campaign has caused immense damage in Gaza. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described the conditions there as “hell on earth,” and Israel appears to have repeatedly violated international humanitarian law. More than 14,000 Palestinians have been killed, and Israel cut off water, food and fuel for the region before the current temporary ceasefire.
On Thursday, the Israeli news outlets +972 and Local Call published an investigation quoting Israeli intelligence sources as saying the country has loosened its limits on harming civilians and striking non-military targets in its current Gaza campaign.
U.S. laws and Biden administration policies on weapon transfers are intended to ensure that American military aid cannot flow to forces that commit serious human rights violations. But analysts and current and former U.S. officials say there’s a tacit understanding of a pass for Israel.
Israeli units suspected of abuses are investigated differently from those of any other country, for instance, and it’s almost unheard of for legislators to halt arms deals with Israel over rights concerns the way they often do with other controversial nations.
Still, rights advocates are cautiously optimistic that the new conversation in Congress will lead to a shift.
“Virtually everything the Israeli military is doing in Gaza is backed in some way by the United States,” said Annie Shiel, the U.S. advocacy director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, a nonprofit focused on ending civilian harm amid wars. Currently, it does not appear that even the laws on the books are being applied to that U.S. assistance, Shiel argued, citing the example of the Leahy law, a provision intended to bar American aid to units that commit humanitarian abuses.
“The Leahy law should be a powerful tool in this case,” Shiel said. “Unfortunately, its enforcement is broken when it comes to U.S. assistance to Israel. As far as we know publicly, no Israeli unit has ever been listed as prohibited under the Leahy law despite credible violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”
A State Department spokesperson told HuffPost via email after this article was published, “In general, the Leahy law applies to units of foreign security forces of all countries, including Israel.”
Shiel also expressed concern with the Biden administration’s mixed messaging on Israel. Top officials have simultaneously said they expect the country to follow the laws of war in its conduct, and said they are not tracking to see if Israel does so. “It is our expectation that... they comply with the laws of war,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said earlier this month.
When asked whether the U.S. is tracking allegations of Israeli war crimes, Miller responded: “It is not an assessment that we are making now.”
“It’s hard to see how they could be upholding U.S. law, or the Biden administration’s own policy commitments for that matter, without doing that kind of assessment,” Shiel told HuffPost. “Congress should not provide funds without meaningful conditions to ensure that the United States does not further contribute to devastating civilian harm.”
Legislators could even send a strong message without specifically putting conditions on the Israel aid package.
Shiel noted that Congress could, for example, write into law the Conventional Arms Transfer policy that Biden unveiled earlier this year, which sets up a new standard barring weapons transfers if it is judged “more likely than not” that the U.S. arms will be used to commit war crimes.
Or they could use annual must-pass appropriations bills to require new certifications about Israeli forces to keep aid flowing, as they do for military units run by other nations, said Josh Paul, a former State Department official who spent over a decade working on weapons deals for the U.S. government and recently left over objections to how the war was being handled.
Proponents of changing the U.S. approach acknowledge how hard it would be to tweak laws ― but even the unprecedented public discussion of that possibility is giving them hope.
“The conditionality question really... is a signaling question,” Paul said, in terms of Washington’s expectation that Israel be more restrained in its campaign.
Israeli officials and national security hawks are trying to weaken that signal.
Staffers of Sens. Blumenthal and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), neither of whom support conditions on aid, invited Senate personnel to a Tuesday screening in the Senate of a film documenting the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, a Senate aide told HuffPost. The aide, who attended the screening, estimated that up to 140 staffers were present.
“It felt like the purpose of the screening was to invoke humanity for a negative purpose of retaliation,” the aide said of the film, which showed Palestinian militants committing gruesome acts.
But the aide said that despite the organizers’ intent, the experience helped them personally both to mourn the affected Israelis and to grieve the Gazans now facing terror ― and to reflect on how the suffering of the former did not justify what is being done to the latter, but how the two were inseparable.
“For it to have come out for us in this community, specifically in the lead-up to consideration for the aid package for Israel, for it come specifically for the Senate, specifically after a dozen senators raised the prospect of considering humanitarian limits to aid ― it felt very targeted,” the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions.
A source familiar with activity in the Senate told The Intercept this week there have recently been an “unusual” number of briefings on Israel, and they have been more secretive and focused than normal.
The aide who spoke to HuffPost worries that the push to reiterate Israel’s viewpoint and assuage concerns about its actions could ultimately weaken the effect of activism for a more measured approach or even a cease-fire.
“You’re about to write up memos to support votes, you’re about to schedule meetings for your boss,” the aide said. “What I suspect might happen is that... this conversation on conditions for aid could be used as, ‘See, we had the conversation, now we can have the status quo.’”
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has offered some indication of what might happen if senators choose that approach.