Senate Democrats challenge Biden on Israel, seeking assurances about aid
By Karoun Demirjian
A majority of the Senate Democratic caucus called on President Joe Biden on Wednesday to defend his request for $14.3 billion in emergency military assistance for Israel, seeking assurances that the Jewish state has a viable plan for defeating Hamas and that the United States will not be funding actions that run afoul of international and U.S. laws.
In a letter to the president, 24 Demo-crats and two independents who caucus with them asked for details on how the administration planned to guarantee that Israel was properly mitigating civilian casu-alties in Gaza. They also asked for Biden’s assessment of whether Israel’s plans to oust Hamas from the Gaza Strip were achiev-able militarily, whether those plans were taking the fate of hostages into account and whether the country’s plan for governing the territory after the war was viable.
The letter represents the first broad challenge that Biden has faced from mem-bers of his own party over his plans to help Israel wage a war against Hamas, through assaults on Gaza that commenced after the group brutally attacked civilians and sol-diers in Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people and abducting about 240.
It was spearheaded by Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has been one of the most vocal senators urging ad-ministration officials to address the plight of Palestinian civilians. Signatories also include leading Democrats such as Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the party’s No. 2 in the chamber, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, reflecting that concern about Israel’s actions — and Biden’s support for them — goes beyond the progressive left.
The lawmakers’ message comes as the Senate weighs Biden’s request for an emergency $105 billion national security spending package to provide military aid to Israel and Ukraine, as well as to address threats to the Indo-Pacific region and secu-rity at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Republican-led House last week approved the money for Israel, but that bill is dead on arrival in the Senate because it includes domestic spending cuts and omits help for Ukraine. The Senate has not yet taken up an alternative.
The senators did not threaten to with-hold their support for aid to Israel, but their pointed requests for more information and accountability over the weapons they will be asked to approve were further evidence of a shift in tone among Democrats on the war. It has paralleled one by Biden himself, who has become more critical of Israel’s war campaign, which has brought on a humanitarian crisis. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said more than 10,000 people have been killed.
The senators drew a distinction be-tween defensive aid for Israel, for which they expressed unequivocal support, and military assistance that would go toward furthering Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, about which they raised significant questions.
“We believe the United States should immediately provide Israel with the funding it needs to replenish its defensive systems, including Iron Dome and other air defense capabilities,” the group wrote. “But to better understand the efficacy of U.S. funding that supports Israel’s operations inside Gaza, we respectfully ask your team to provide us with information relative to these two clear U.S. priorities: supporting an Israeli strategy that will effectively degrade and defeat the threat from Hamas and taking all possible measures to protect civilians in Gaza.”
The senators said that they were invested in Israel’s success and that their concerns were rooted in a desire to see Israel avoid the sort of strategic blunders that might worsen its long-term security.
“The attacks of Oct. 7 brought back chilling memories of the United States’ own confrontation with terror 22 years ago,” they wrote. They encouraged Israel to “learn from the mistakes the United States made in our fight against terrorism by focusing on realistic and achievable military goals, and abide by the laws of war, including the protection of civilians.”
The Senate Democrats’ letter also comes amid mounting pressure from the party’s left wing, where lawmakers and activists have been agitating for a cease-fire and condemning Biden for abetting what they charge is a genocide of Palestinians. Genocide is defined under international law as a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, whether in wartime or peacetime. Israel’s leaders have said they are targeting Hamas, not Palestinian civilians.
The House on Tuesday night censured Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. and the only Palestinian American in Congress, for her harsh criticism of Israel, her suggestion that its policies prompted the Hamas at-tack and her embrace of a pro-Palestinian slogan that many regard as calling for the destruction of Israel. She used the debate of the resolution to plead for sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people.
In the letter, Senate Democrats asked for information about “what specific mech-anisms you are 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.” They specifically requested an as-sessment of whether Israel’s military rules of engagement, particularly regarding mitigating civilian casualties, are in line with U.S. policy and practice.
White House officials did not imme-diately respond to requests for comment on the letter.
Biden and his top deputies have re-peatedly stated that the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel as it tries to eradicate the threat from Hamas. But in recent weeks, Biden and top administration officials have spent ample time stressing the importance of protecting Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire, urging Israeli leaders to commit to humanitarian pauses in order to facilitate deliveries of food, water and fuel to beleaguered Gaza residents prohibited from leaving the Strip to escape the fighting.
Many of the letter’s signatories have been vocal about urging the administration to prioritize the protection of Palestinian civilians, both in Gaza and the West Bank, where dozens have been killed by settler violence since the start of the war. In the letter, they ask Biden to obtain public as-surances from both Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and Mahmoud Ab-bas, the Palestinian president with authority over the West Bank, to quell violent attacks against each other’s people.
The signatories are a cross-section of Senate Democrats who have taken varying positions on the conflict in recent days. Durbin is the only one who has endorsed calls for a cease-fire under certain condi-tions, including Hamas first agreeing to release all hostages in its custody. Also signing on to the letter were two indepen-dent senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.