Democrats split on placing conditions on military aid to Israel

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress are divided on whether to set guardrails on additional military aid to Israel as that country responds to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks with airstrikes and a ground war in Gaza.

It’s not yet clear what those conditions would be or how they would affect congressional support for aid to Israel, amid a weeks-long debate within Congress over how to move forward with an emergency spending request from the Biden administration.

“We remain very concerned about the unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties, over two-thirds of whom are women and children,” Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said during a brief interview with States Newsroom on Wednesday, referring to those killed during airstrikes on Gaza.

“And we also believe we need much more cooperation from the Netanyahu government in the provision of desperately needed humanitarian aid,” Van Hollen added. “So our goal is to find a path to achieving those objectives, and that’s where the conversation is.”

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The White House, he said, “shares those goals” and would “agree we have not achieved them yet.”

The administration proposal, released in October, asked Congress to approve more than $105 billion in funding to assist Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan and bolster security at the U.S. Southern border.

The request is bogged down at the moment as a small group of Democratic and Republican senators try to broker a bipartisan agreement on border security that GOP leaders say is necessary to move forward with aid to Ukraine.

‘Different views’

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, said Tuesday during a press conference that Democrats were having discussions about whether to set conditions on military aid to Israel.

“There are different views on that, and we’re going to have to have a discussion with the caucus and the administration,” Schumer said.

Schumer said his plan is to put the bill, which has yet to be finalized and released, on the floor next week.

Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said during a brief interview Wednesday that it’s important to set some parameters on additional military aid to Israel.

“As long as the United States taxpayer is funding significant aid to Israel, as long as the United States is party to the Geneva Conventions, we cannot fund offensive military support to Israel that is used for bombing Gaza, indiscriminately killing thousands of people and violating international law,” she said.

Jayapal rejected the idea that Congress shouldn’t “get involved with the details” regarding how Israel would be able to use additional military aid.

“We’re funding the aid and for every other country we have requirements around what that means,” Jayapal said. “And so we should around Israel as well.”

Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz rejected the idea of setting conditions on military aid to Israel, saying that’s not a requirement that should be placed on an emergency supplemental spending bill.

“Can you imagine if other countries who were coming to our aid after 9/11 said, ‘Well, we’re happy to help you, but here are the conditions under which we’re going to do that.’ It’s an emergency situation. You have to deal with the emergency,” she said.

Afterward if there are concerns about how Israel is using the military aid, Wasserman Schultz said during a brief interview, Congress could address that within the full-year spending bills.

“But we typically don’t put conditions on aid to Israel, and there’s overwhelming opposition to that,” she said.

Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman also spurned the idea of setting conditions on military aid to Israel at the moment.

“I can’t foresee, at least right now,” he said. “Certainly not before the hostages are brought back or Hamas is destroyed.”

No specifics yet

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said the aid bill for Israel could “shape” how the country may be able to use additional military funding. But he noted that is also likely to happen with additional aid to Ukraine.

“I’m very confident we’re going to have a robust aid package. But we are trying to accomplish a couple different objectives — enable and support our ally Israel defending against Hamas, doing our best to promote humanitarian aid, doing our best to reduce civilian suffering,” Kaine said. “And so we’re trying to hit a sweet spot in that, and so that’s what we’ll do.”

There are several “ideas in the air” at the moment about how to possibly condition military aid to Israel, but Kaine declined to offer specifics until those talks settle on what to do or not do.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Tina Smith emphasized during a brief interview that it isn’t unusual for Congress to set conditions on how other countries can use military aid.

“It’s very common for the United States, when we’re providing military aid or other kinds of aid, to have expectations or understandings about how that aid is going to be used and it’s got to be used following international law,” Smith said. “And so I think that just that in and of itself is not extraordinary. And I’ll just leave it at that for now.”

Senate letter

In early November, a group of 26 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Biden asking the administration to share its “assessment of the viability of Israel’s military strategy in Gaza, and whether it prioritizes the release of hostages.”

“We would also like to better understand whether there is an achievable plan for governing Gaza when the Israeli military operation ends,” the senators wrote. “We further seek to understand if Israel supports the conditions necessary to ultimately achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The Democratic lawmakers also asked the White House to detail what “mechanisms” it was putting in place to “ensure that Israeli military operations conducted inside Gaza are carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law and to ensure that any U.S.-provided equipment is used in a manner consistent with U.S. law.”

Sens. Van Hollen, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Jack Reed of Rhode Island released a joint statement Wednesday saying they appreciated meeting with White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan earlier this week, but expected a public response to the letter.

“We continue to support additional assistance to Israel in the aftermath of the brutal Hamas attacks — but we are all in agreement that this assistance must be consistent with our interests and values and used in a manner that adheres to international humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict, and U.S. law,” the three wrote.

“We need to find a better path toward helping Israel achieve legitimate military and security objectives,” they said. “U.S. assistance has never come in the form of a blank check — regardless of the recipient.”

Any supplemental spending bill for Israel would need to garner Republican votes to move through the divided Congress, making conditions on military aid to Israel a difficult task, given Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s outright rejection of the proposal.

The Kentucky Republican said Tuesday during a press conference the idea of setting conditions on aid to Israel was “ridiculous” and “totally unnecessary.”

“This is a democracy, a great ally of ours and I do not think we need to condition the support that hopefully we will give to Israel very soon,” McConnell said.

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