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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Senate rejects Israel human rights measure, but skepticism on aid persists

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leaves the West Wing of the White House after a meeting with President Joe Biden, in Washington, Aug. 30, 2023. A measure by Sanders that would order a report on whether Israel had committed human rights violations reflects some Democrats’ resistance to providing unfettered aid. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Karoun Demirjian

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. More than 100 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 the Gaza Strip 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 reached a peak Tuesday, when the Senate voted on a resolution threatening to 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.

The Senate tabled the measure, forced to the floor by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., by a vote of 72-11. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joined Sanders and nine Democrats in voting to keep the resolution alive.

The result highlighted fissures among Democrats about fulfilling President Joe Biden’s request to send a fresh infusion of military aid to Israel, which some on the left say must be limited or otherwise conditioned on changing its approach to the war in Gaza.

Sanders’ resolution is just one of a raft of measures that Senate progressives have proposed in recent weeks reflecting their uneasiness with Israel’s conduct of the war and raising questions about whether and under what circumstances the United States would send funding to back the country.

“This is a tragedy in which we, the United States of America, are complicit,” Sanders said on the floor, pointing out that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza was more intensive than the bombing of Dresden, Germany, in World War II, and had put the local population at risk of famine.

“Much of what is happening, much of the bombardment and the other actions we are seeing now is happening right now with U.S. arms and equipment,” he added.

Biden in October requested a sweeping emergency national security package including roughly $14 billion to back Israel’s war effort, but debate on that measure has largely focused on the much bigger sum earmarked for Ukraine. Many Republicans oppose sending more money to Ukraine, while others have insisted that it must come with an immigration crackdown at the U.S. border with Mexico — demands that have been the subject of painstaking negotiations.

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, led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would require the president to guarantee that any weapons provided would be used in accordance with U.S. and international law. Another, led by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., would ensure that Congress retains the ability to review arms transfers to Israel, which would be waived under the emergency national security supplemental. Both are being offered as amendments to the national security spending package.

Sanders, who last month voted against sending unconditional security aid to Israel, described his resolution as a reasonable and conservative measure, despite the fact that it earned slightly less support than other pending proposals.

“This is a very modest, common-sense proposal and frankly hard for me to understand why anyone would oppose it,” Sanders said on the Senate floor. “What we are voting on today is simply a request for information.”

Congress has not invoked the arcane human rights authority that Sanders’ resolution relied on, which would have frozen aid until the administration submitted the required human rights report, since 1976.

Senate Republicans denounced the resolution as a misguided attempt to undermine an ally that would empower Hamas.

“I can only imagine the joy that terrorist groups throughout the world have that we are even talking about such a proposal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the floor. The resolution, he added, “is not only off base, it’s dangerous. It’s doing harm. It sends absolutely the wrong signal at the wrong time.”

Most Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, 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,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “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 Kaine’s or Van Hollen’s proposals will receive votes, as the national security spending bill remains stalled while the border security negotiations drag on. 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,” 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 have lobbied intensely against Sanders’ resolution and the proposals to put conditions on aid to Israel. The Biden administration has also resisted congressional efforts to place stipulations on aid, and officials have argued that Sanders’ resolution is ill-timed and unnecessary.

“It’s unworkable, quite frankly,” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, said in a statement. “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.”

Schumer, who voted against Sanders’ resolution, has yet to commit to allowing votes on any of the Israel-related amendments to the national security bill.

“There are discussions happening among members of our caucus with the administration on the best path forward,” he said in a statement. “I am happy to review what they come up with.”

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