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Senate to vote on potential aid freeze to Israel as Democrats question conduct of war

Written by The Anand Market

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When Hamas launched a bloody attack on Israel in October, there was a swift and loud bipartisan clamor in Congress for the United States to spare no expense to support a robust military response from the Jewish state. One hundred days later, that consensus on Capitol Hill is showing signs of crumbling, as left-wing Democrats, alarmed by the growing human toll of the war in Gaza, push to limit aid to Israel or impose strict conditions on it. .

The effort divided Democrats and sparked an intensive lobbying counter-effort from pro-Israel groups. It will come to a head 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 has committed violations. of human rights in its conduct of war. If the Biden administration misses the deadline, aid will be restored once Congress receives the report or takes separate votes to ensure aid continues uninterrupted.

The measure, imposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, is unlikely to be adopted given the opposition of Republicans and Democrats. But it is just one of several measures proposed by progressives in the Senate in recent weeks, which reflect their unease with Israel’s conduct of the war and raise questions about whether and under what circumstances the United States would send a new injection of funds to Israel. return the country.

“The American people and Congress are increasingly concerned that what Israel is waging now is not a war against Hamas, but a war against the Palestinian people,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview . “The fact that, thanks to American military aid, children are starving to death, it’s for me – I mean, I just don’t know what adjectives I can use. It is shameful. And I think I’m not the only one who feels this way.

President Biden in October requested a sweeping emergency national security package, including about $14 billion to support Israel in the conflict, but debate over the measure has largely focused on the much larger sum set aside to Ukraine. Many Republicans are opposed to sending more money to kyiv, and others have insisted it should be accompanied by a crackdown on immigration at the U.S.-Russian border. Mexico, which was the subject of arduous negotiations.

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But aid to Israel faces its own obstacles, as the military campaign in Gaza drags on and the number of Palestinians killed exceeds 24,000, most of them civilians, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

The growing death toll – along with roadblocks imposed by Israel to deliver aid to civilians trapped by the bombings – has inspired protests in the streets of American cities and charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice. It has also raised concerns within the Biden administration, as senior officials push Israel to end its military operations and authorize more aid, while maintaining a public stance of support for the war.

In recent weeks, more than a dozen Democratic senators, almost all from the party’s left wing, have signed various measures aimed at limiting or conditioning security aid to Israel. The president would need to guarantee that any weapons supplied would be used in accordance with U.S. and international law.

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“The American people and Congress are increasingly concerned that what Israel is waging is not a war against Hamas, but a war against the Palestinian people,” said Senator Bernie Sanders.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Sanders, who last month voted against sending unconditional security aid to Israel, called his resolution a reasonable and conservative step.

Other senators supporting the resolution argued that it should not be controversial to seek accountability in a deadly war.

“This poses important questions about the conduct of war and the rights of civilians,” Senator Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, said of Mr. Sanders’ resolution in a statement. “Congress and the American people deserve answers to these questions. »

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Yet even some Democrats concerned about Israel’s actions are wary of Mr. Sanders’ approach. Congress did not invoke the arcane human rights authority on which Mr. Sanders’ resolution relies. since 1976.

“I’m inclined to be opposed to it,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, told reporters last week, explaining that he was focusing his efforts elsewhere.

Mr. Kaine is leading a campaign to preserve Congress’s ability to review arms transfers to Israel, which would be eliminated under the emergency national security spending bill currently under discussion. He also supports a proposal by Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, to ask the president to ensure that countries receiving American military assistance – including Israel – use the weapons in accordance with American law, international humanitarian law and laws on armed conflict. .

Senate Republicans are expected to vote against the measure; their leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called the idea of ​​imposing restrictions on military aid to Israel “ridiculous.” And most Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and majority leader, have also been reluctant to support efforts to force the Biden administration to impose conditions on aid to Israel in under the law.

“There is no doubt that the administration can and should continue to push for reduced civilian casualties and increased humanitarian assistance, as well as an eventual pause that would allow the return of hostages,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “But right now, Israel is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against a terrorist organization that has sworn to annihilate it and the Jewish people, and I believe we must continue both military and humanitarian aid. »

It is not yet clear whether Mr. Kaine or Mr. Van Hollen’s proposals will receive votes, as the national security spending bill remains stalled while negotiations on border security s drag on without resolution.

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But Democratic supporters suggest they are willing to delay the measure unless their proposals are taken into account.

“In order to pass a bill the size of a supplemental proposal in the Senate, our support and cooperation will be necessary,” Mr. Van Hollen said in an interview, adding that Senate Democrats were increasingly interested in his proposal. “We have a lot of leverage when it comes to the surcharge – we will insist that we have the opportunity to vote on this.”

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The rising death toll in Gaza has sparked protests in the streets of Washington and other US cities.Credit…Allison Bailey for the New York Times

Pro-Israel groups are lobbying hard against proposals to condition aid to Israel, as well as against Mr. Sanders’ resolution. And the Biden administration has resisted congressional efforts to impose conditions on the aid. Officials also argued that Mr. Sanders’ resolution was ill-timed and unnecessary.

“Frankly, this is unworkable,” National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said in a statement Sunday. “The Israelis have indicated that they are preparing to reduce the intensity of their operations. And we believe that the transition will be helpful both in terms of reducing civilian casualties and increasing humanitarian aid.

But critics in Israel’s Congress are skeptical of the claims, pointing to continuing bombings in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The Biden administration’s recent use of emergency powers to bypass Congress and quickly send weapons to Israel also angered many lawmakers who were pushing for statutory changes.

“There is enormous frustration because, despite what we are asking for, we are not getting significant results,” Van Hollen said. He argued that the administration’s simultaneous calls for Israel to reduce casualties while providing weapons to its army 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 to publicly comment on Mr. Sanders’ resolution.

“Discussions are ongoing between members of our caucus and the administration about the best path forward,” Schumer said in a statement. “I’m happy to look at what they come up with.”