Some Want Israel to Limit Dea 12/04 07:08
WASHINGTON (AP) -- As a cease-fire ticked down last week and Israel prepared
to resume its round-the-clock airstrikes, Sen. Bernie Sanders and a robust
group of Democratic senators had a message for their president: They were done
"asking nicely" for Israel to do more to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza.
Lawmakers warned President Joe Biden's national security team that planned
U.S. aid to Israel must be met with assurances of concrete steps from Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right government.
"The truth is that if asking nicely worked, we wouldn't be in the position
we are today," Sanders said in a floor speech. It was time for the United
States to use its "substantial leverage" with its ally, the Vermont senator
"And we all know what that leverage is," he said, adding, "the blank-check
approach must end."
With Biden's request for a nearly $106 billion aid package for Ukraine,
Israel and other national security needs hanging in the balance, the senators'
tougher line on Israel has gotten the White House's attention, and that of
Lawmakers of both major political parties for decades have embraced the U.S.
role as Israel's top protector, and it's all but inconceivable that they would
vote down the wartime aid. The Democratic lawmakers are adamant that's not
their intent, as strong supporters of Israel's right of self-defense against
Hamas. But just the fact that Democratic lawmakers are making that link signals
the fractures in Congress amid the daily scenes of suffering among besieged
Sanders and the Democratic senators involved say they are firm in their
stand that Israel's military must adopt substantive measures to lessen civilian
deaths in Gaza as part of receiving the supplemental's $14.3 billion in U.S.
aid for Israel's war.
The warning from friendly Democrats is a complication for the White House as
it faces what had already been a challenging task of getting the supplemental
aid bill through Congress. Some Republicans are balking at the part of the bill
that provides funding for Ukraine's war against Russia, and the funding for
Israel was supposed to be the easy part.
The demand is a warning of more trouble ahead for an Israeli government
that's often at odds with the U.S. in its treatment of Palestinians.
"There's a big difference between asking and getting a commitment" from
Netanyahu's government on a plan to reduce civilian casualties and improve
living conditions in Gaza, Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen told The
Associated Press. Van Hollen has been one of the key senators huddling with
administration officials on the demands.
"So our goal is to achieve results," Van Hollen said. "And not just set
Following the senators' warning, the Biden administration has upped its own
demands to Israel since late last week, insisting publicly for the first time
that Israeli leaders not just hear out U.S. demands to ease civilian suffering
in Gaza, but agree to them.
Over the weekend, as an end to the cease-fire brought the return of Israeli
bombardment and Hamas rocket strikes, the Israeli military said it had begun
using one measure directed by the Biden administration: an online map of Gaza
neighborhoods to tell civilians which crowded streets, neighborhoods and
communities to evacuate before an Israeli attack.
Heavy bombardment followed the evacuation orders, and Palestinians in the
Gaza Strip said they were running out of places to go in the sealed-off
territory. Many of its 2.3 million people are crammed into the south after
Israel ordered civilians to leave the north in the early days of the war, which
was sparked by the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack in Israel that killed about 1,200
people, mostly civilians.
The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says more than 15,500 Palestinians
have been killed, with 70% of them women and children.
On social media, Sanders repeated his call for an end to blank checks for
Israel as Israeli forces returned to heavy bombing after the cease-fire.
While Secretary of State Antony Blinken said more measures were coming
besides the online map, it wasn't clear if any would lessen civilian deaths or
satisfy administration and lawmaker demands.
Israel is the top recipient of U.S. military aid over time.
Trying to attach strings to U.S. aid to Israel isn't unheard of, for
Congress or for U.S. presidents. Ronald Reagan, for instance, repeatedly
suspended or threatened suspensions of fighter jet deliveries to Israel over
its military incursions in the region in the 1980s. This time, though, is
notable since it is being discussed in a Democratic-controlled Senate.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and other White House officials
huddled with the Senate Democrats over the warning. Israeli diplomats and
military officials also rushed to stem such a move, hosting lawmakers for
repeated viewings of video of Hamas atrocities on Oct. 7 to make the case for
the U.S. military aid.
Netanyahu's coalition has weathered calls in the past from advocacy groups
and individual lawmakers. Objections concerned Palestinian civilian deaths in
past Israeli wars against Hamas.
Biden from the start adopted what came to be called his "bear-hug" approach
to the Israeli leader -- embracing him publicly, and saving any U.S. appeals
for changed behavior for private discussions. But when Biden told reporters on
Nov. 24 he thought conditioning military aid to Israel was a "worthwhile
thought," it helped the proposal gain traction among administration-friendly
Sanders and the Democrats haven't specified what form the conditions could
take, as talks continue. Several Democratic senators contend no additional law
is necessary. They say existing U.S. law already mandates that countries
receiving U.S. military aid heed human rights concerns.
Some Senate Democrats express dislike of the use of the term conditions and
depict their action as more of a determination to influence an outcome.
No matter what, "we're going to do a robust aid package for Israel," said
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. "But it's got to be consistent with
humanitarian aid, and also efforts to reduce the suffering of Gazans who aren't
part of Hamas."