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Senate Democrats question Biden’s Israel strategy

Written by on January 20, 2024

Earlier this week, 11 senators voted for a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders aimed at forcing the Biden administration to examine potential human rights abuses by Israel.

After weeks of unquestioning support, the Senate is emerging as a center of resistance to Biden’s unwavering embrace of Israel — at least in modest ways — as even centrist Democrats are signaling their discomfort with the president’s “bear hug” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A number of prominent Democrats have proposed or backed measures that aim to hold Israel accountable or to shift American strategy, even if they are unlikely to garner enough support to pass.

The growing willingness of establishment Democrats to criticize or push back on Israel — a move that would have come with serious political ramifications just a few months ago — signals a shift in the politics of the party since the war in Gaza began more than 100 days ago. Senators from swing states, including Georgia, Wisconsin and Minnesota, have signed on to some of these measures as polls show a notable drop in support for Biden among young, Muslim and Arab American voters over his handling of the issue.

While few senators are voicing full-throated criticism of Biden’s Israel policy, the new, more skeptical tone reflects an increasing unease as the civilian toll in Gaza rises and Israel repeatedly flouts U.S. requests to modify its military onslaught.

“Every week the Netanyahu coalition promises the Biden administration that we will see meaningful changes, and every week it never materializes,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who, along with Kaine, organized the effort to impose conditions in exchange for aid. Van Hollen noted that some members of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition are even “bragging” about ignoring American requests.

Van Hollen said he initially supported Biden’s embrace of Netanyahu, when the president flew to Israel shortly after the Hamas attacks to show U.S. support for its close ally. On Oct. 7, militants surged across the Gaza border and began hunting down Israeli civilians, killing 1,200 and taking about 250 hostage. Israel has responded with a months-long war that has killed almost 25,000 Palestinians and left dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

As Israel fails to transition to the “lower-intensity” phase of operations it long promised, Van Hollen said, the American approach to its ally needs to change.

The once-remote push to condition aid to Israel and other nations on their compliance with international humanitarian law had 18 co-sponsors as of Friday, when five additional Democratic senators signed on. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in an interview estimated that about half of the 51 Democratic and independent senators would vote for such a measure on the floor, a striking total for a body where unconditional aid to Israel had been of the few remaining bipartisan certainties.

Some Biden allies on Capitol Hill are questioning the president’s approach in part because Israel continues to rebuff his push to allow in more aid for a desperate and hungry population and because the Israel-Gaza conflict is spilling over into other areas. Among other things, these senators want Biden to more strategically use the American vote on the United Nations Security Council, where the U.S. has vetoed several attempts to formally urge a cease-fire.

Sanders said he appreciates that Biden has repeatedly called on Netanyahu to dramatically scale down Israel’s military operation, but said it’s clear those appeals have not worked.

“You know what? Netanyahu hasn’t done it,” Sanders said. “So I’m not quite sure why we want to give another $10 billion to a right-wing government that ignores the desires of our president and many of us in Congress.”

The U.S. sends $3.3 billion to Israel in security assistance each year, and the Biden administration has requested an additional $14 billion for the country as part of a supplemental funding package that is being negotiated in the Senate.

As a result of Biden’s unwavering support for Israel, the U.S. has in many parts of the world become identified with a military campaign that has displaced more than 80 percent of the Gazan population and created uninhabitable conditions in the enclave. Over the past month, some far-right Israeli government ministers have endorsed the idea of a “voluntary migration” for Palestinians out of Gaza, even as the Biden administration strongly rejects the idea.

Biden advisers held a private meeting this month about how to return some Palestinians to northern Gaza, a notion that many experts said is unrealistic given that much of the northern half of the strip has been reduced to rubble.

Privately, Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu has been growing in recent weeks as Israel has repeatedly ignored his requests. Instead, Netanyahu is using increasingly harsh language to reject the notion of a Palestinian state, which Biden has said must follow the end of the war in Gaza.

“Every territory we pull out from, we get terror — terrible terror — against us,” Netanyahu said at a news conference on Thursday. “It happened in southern Lebanon, it happened in Gaza Strip, and it happened in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).” Therefore, Netanyahu said, any resolution must include Israeli control over all territory west of the Jordan River.



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