WASHINGTON — Progressive Democrats are pushing President Joe Biden to break with decades of US military aid policy toward Israel as the war in Gaza continues and Congress is poised to vote on additional military aid to Israel.
On Sunday, the United States Senate unveiled the Emergency National Security Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2024 to provide additional military funding for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel, and to pair the additional funding with stricter immigration policies on the southern border.
Progressives in the Senate are pushing two amendments to the bill that break with decades of American military aid policy toward Israel and attempt to hold Israel more accountable for the way it uses American weapons and financing.
One amendment, proposed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, would require weapons purchased under the supplemental bill by a country to be used in accordance with US law, international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict.
“I am pleased to see growing momentum behind our effort to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are used by our partners in a manner that aligns with our values and our interests — and not come in the form of a blank check,” Van Hollen wrote in a press release.
Van Hollen’s amendment now has the support of 18 Senate Democrats, including progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is proposing a second amendment that would strip $10.1 billion in offensive military funding from the Senate bill.
“The United States cannot be complicit in this humanitarian disaster,” Sanders wrote in a press release. “That is why I will be offering an amendment to the supplemental bill to ensure zero funding for the continuation of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s illegal, immoral war against the Palestinian people.”
Despite increased pressure from his party and an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza due to Israel’s offensive, President Biden has not agreed to condition military aid to Israel.
If passed by Congress, the bill would cost $118 billion, with more than $14 billion of that total being provided in military aid to Israel by the Departments of State and Defense. More than $60 billion would go to Ukraine and another $20 billion to southern border enforcement.
The bill would not place political or human rights conditions on the additional military aid to Israel and would grant Israel more flexibility in stockpiling US weapons.
Along with the increased military aid to Israel, the bill would also allocate $9.2 billion in humanitarian assistance through the Department of State and USAID for Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, East Africa, South Asia and elsewhere.
The bill does not specify how much of the $9.2 billion in humanitarian aid would go to Gazans, and it prohibits the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) from receiving US funding and adds additional oversight provisions for aid entering Gaza. Twelve employees of the UNRWA were accused by Israel of involvement in Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, and the United States and a dozen other countries suspended funding to the agency in response.
Biden has reportedly been discussing Israel’s responsibility “to reduce civilian harm and protect the innocents” with Netanyahu, National Security Spokesman John Kirby said at a Jan. 19 press briefing.
But when pressed on the idea of conditioning aid, Kirby said the administration would continue "the approach that we're taking right now.“
Furthermore, the White House has resisted calls by progressive activists and progressive lawmakers to advocate for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, though Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Middle East again Monday to support negotiations toward a cease-fire.
Some progressive House Democrats are also in favor of placing political conditions on military aid to Israel, signaling that the divide with President Biden is growing among Democrats in both chambers of Congress.
“It’s very important that Israel follow the international laws of war, and I don’t believe that they are right now,” Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Al-Monitor. “I do not think that the United States should be funding any offensive aid that is assisting Israel unless they are abiding by those laws. I would support conditions to funding aid to Israel.”
On Oct. 17, Jayapal — along with several other progressive House Democrats — called for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hamas to protect civilian life.
The criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza has grown as the humanitarian situation in the territory grows more dire, with more than 27,000 Gazans reportedly killed by Israeli attacks since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.
More than 63,000 Gazans have been wounded since Israel began its military operations, and on Jan. 16, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights released a report stating that 85% of Gaza’s population had been internally displaced and that 80% of all the world’s people “facing famine or catastrophic hunger worldwide” were in Gaza.
The International Court of Justice ruled that allegations that Israel is perpetrating genocide in Gaza are “plausible,” though Israel has vehemently denied the allegation. The ICJ found that Israel must take action to prevent genocidal violence by its armed forces and ensure that humanitarian aid to Gaza is increased.
Biden first requested Congress pass supplemental national security funding on Oct. 20, and senators in the politically divided Congress negotiated the package for months after Republicans demanded stricter immigration enforcement be included in the law to gain their support.
Ahead of a vote in the Senate, the bill is facing increasing political opposition making passage an uphill climb.
Passage of the bill in jeopardy due to Republican opposition
After the Senate released the text of the bill, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson wrote on X, “This bill is even worse than we expected, and won’t come close to ending the border catastrophe the President has created. If this bill reaches the House, it will be dead on arrival."
Later, Republican House leadership released a joint statement: “Any consideration of this Senate bill in its current form is a waste of time. It is dead on arrival in the House. We encourage the US Senate to reject it.”
Instead, House Republicans are proposing a $17.6 billion bill that would provide unconditioned aid to Israel but no military aid to Ukraine or changes to border policy, which the White House continues to oppose. In a statement, the Biden administration called the Republican bill a “ploy” that makes the security of Israel a “political game.”
In the same statement, the White House made it clear that it opposed the Republican bill because it did not include funding for Ukraine or the southern border.
While Republicans have coalesced in political opposition to the Senate bill over immigration policy, it remains unclear whether progressives will organize opposition to the bill due to its unconditioned military aid for Israel.
Sanders has a record of opposing unconditioned military aid to Israel, voting against the Senate’s first attempt to pass Biden’s national security package in November and introducing a resolution that would have frozen aid to Israel if the State Department did not produce a human rights report on the country’s conduct in Gaza.
“While there is no question in my mind that Israel has the right to defend itself and go to war against Hamas, who started this terrible situation, Israel does not have the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people and innocent men, women and children in Gaza,” Sanders said on the Senate floor in support of his resolution.
The resolution failed 76-11 in the Senate, showing that despite progressives' push for more accountability from Israel, support for the country remains popular among Congress.
But other Democratic Senators who support efforts to condition aid to Israel or hold Israel more accountable may support the bipartisan bill even if Van Hollen's or Sanders’ amendments to the bill do not pass because of their support for Ukraine.
Van Hollen told Al-Monitor outside the Senate chamber that he didn’t know of any efforts by Senate progressives to potentially filibuster the bipartisan bill or take stronger steps to oppose it if it does not add political conditions to the military aid. Jayapal told Al-Monitor she would not “pressure” other members of the House Progressive Caucus, which has over 100 members, into agreeing with her stance on conditioning military aid to Israel.
Democrats supporting efforts by Van Hollen and Sanders remain in the minority of their party — the amendments do not have majority support among Senate Democrats, let alone the rest of Congress.
Many other Senate Democrats, such as John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, are vocal supporters of aid to Israel.
“I’m always going to support Israel and vote to support Israel,” Fetterman said when asked if he would support Biden’s proposed legislation. Fetterman has been one of the most vocal supporters of Israel in the Senate, even waving an Israeli flag at pro-cease-fire protesters on several occasions in the Capitol.
Every year, the State Department allocates roughly $3.3 billion in foreign military financing grants to Israel to purchase American military weapons. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the United States has allocated around $300 billion in total economic and military aid to the country — more than any other country the United States supplies with foreign aid, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.
Adjusted for inflation, US military aid to Israel has been constant since the late 1970s.
The foreign military financing funds Israel receives are subject to US law, and the president has to notify Congress of major weapons sales to allow Congress the chance to block a sale through a joint resolution.
The United States puts conditions on foreign military financing for other countries, such as Egypt, where the aid is conditioned on the country improving its human rights protections. But Israel faces no such conditions, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Experts at the nonprofit forum Just Security note that aid to Israel often exploits loopholes to avoid being held accountable to US human rights laws like the Leahy Law, which prohibits foreign assistance going to military units committing human rights abuses.