Will Congress Pressure Israel?

By | Jan 22, 2024

Jewish politics and power

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1. Understanding Bernie

The bottom line of the debate over Bernie Sanders’ proposed bill to condition U.S. military aid to Israel seems clear and simple: It was defeated.

But that tells only part of the story.

A closer look may suggest that even by losing, Sanders has done more than anyone else thus far to change the way America discusses Israel’s Gaza war.

The proposed legislation put forward by the Jewish senator from Vermont, a progressive Independent, called on the Biden administration to provide Congress with a report within 30 days ensuring that Israel is not using U.S.-provided weapons and ammunition in a way that violates human rights. “We must ensure that U.S. aid is being used in accordance with human rights and our own laws,” Sanders said in a passionate January 16 speech on the Senate floor.

It was a carefully thought-out measure. Sanders has distinguished himself from the far-left crowd who took to the streets days after the October 7 Hamas attack to blame Israel for committing genocide and demand an immediate cease-fire. He sided with Israel when explaining that a cease-fire would deliver a victory to Hamas terrorists, while at the same time insisting that Israel should refrain from harming civilians and should do more to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Sanders displayed a mature and nuanced progressive approach, reflecting his years of dealing with foreign policy issues and mixing a healthy dose of realpolitik into a discussion among America’s left that is too often dominated by a binary ideology of good (Palestinians) and evil (Israel). 

Sanders brought this same approach to his Senate resolution, even though this time the issue touched directly on U.S. military aid to Israel, long the third rail of American-Israeli relations.

The Sanders resolution was based on existing U.S. rules that deny American military aid to countries that violate human rights. It basically sought to apply this simple logic: If Israel is indeed acting in accordance with international law and is not harming civilians disproportionately, there should be no problem certifying the aid package. The subtext is a bit trickier: If Israel wants America to keep on sending planeloads of ammunition, it better make sure that its actions adhere to these rules. Sanders did not advocate for cutting aid, he simply used existing rules to send a hint to the Israelis.

Israel opposed the move; AIPAC, the pro-Israel centrist lobby, mobilized its members against it; and the White House made clear that it won’t go along with Sanders’s conditions. No one wants to put limits on Israel’s ability to defend itself in the midst of a war with a brutal enemy that has proved its cruelty.

And everyone got their way: AIPAC chalked down another political victory; the Biden administration, which has already bypassed Congress twice when providing Israel with munitions during the war, can keep on ignoring lawmakers and their concerns; and Bernie won, too.

Despite registering only 11 senators in favor of his resolution (10 Democrats and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky), Sanders managed to distill progressive anger into a reasonable action item, one that can have a real-world impact and that does not come across as blatantly one-sided or anti-Israel. By doing so, he sent a message to the White House that Israel’s actions in Gaza are not beyond criticism and that despite the small number of supporters, it’s on the agenda. 

This is exactly the kind of vote that Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken can take with them the next time they speak to their Israeli counterparts about the killing of civilians in Gaza. Using the recent vote as a demonstration of where American public opinion is heading, they can tell Israelis: We were able to save you this time, but if you don’t change course, next time it might be 51 senators, not 11.

2. The Vote Is Lost, the Battle Is Not Over

Meanwhile, as of this past weekend, 18 senators have already signed on to a different measure calling on the administration to ensure that Israel abides by international law. And it’s not only about the number, which may still increase. It’s about where these co-signers are coming from, politically. Sure, there are the usual progressives, but the list also includes some centrist Democrats, including Virginia’s Tim Kaine.

The message coming out of Capitol Hill is clear: Senate Democrats, perhaps the most loyal group President Biden has, are feeling uneasy with the free pass he’s been giving Israel. Growing frustration over the human toll in Gaza and over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to accommodate Biden’s requests for restraint and for a future two-state vision, are driving this push from Senate Democrats.

3. Jewish Lawmakers Losing Faith in Bibi

Over in the House, there’s also a sense of unease among some Democrats.

Fifteen Jewish Democrats signed on to a statement expressing their disagreement with Israel’s Netanyahu: “We strongly disagree with the prime minister. A two-state solution is the path forward,” the statement read.

Is 15 members a lot? Not at all. In most cases it could be dismissed as a tiny fraction of the 435-member body. But look at the names: mainstream pro-Israel Jewish Democrats Jerry Nadler and Dan Goldman of New York, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and even California’s Brad Sherman, one of the most stalwart pro-Israel voices in the House, are all on the list.

This statement does not discuss conditioning military aid to Israel, demanding a cease-fire or calling on the administration to allow UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel. All it does is make clear to Netanyahu that rejecting the two-state solution puts him at odds not only with Biden but also with the most supportive base Israel has in Congress.

4. Pressuring Netanyahu—The Hostages Edition

The other part of this equation has to do with the toughest element of the tragedy that began on October 7 and is still unfolding.

How to approach the fate of the 138 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza is becoming a defining decision for Israeli society, tearing it into those who believe it is imperative to continue the military campaign until Hamas is fully defeated, and those—led by families of the hostages—who demand an immediate deal to release their loved ones, even if it means halting the military campaign and releasing Israel’s many detained Palestinians, before it is too late.

Testimonies from former hostages paint a terrifying picture of life in Hamas’s underground tunnels where the captives are being held. Evidence of sexual abuse, hunger and lack of medical treatment for ill and wounded hostages is beginning to seep out. Every week brings with it heartbreaking news of hostages who have lost their lives while waiting for a deal.

Representatives of the hostage families were in Washington again this past week. Many have made the journey in the 100-plus days since their relatives were abducted, hoping to raise awareness and calling on the U.S. government to do all it can for the hostages’ release. “Sometimes friends have to deliver hard messages,” said Liz Hirsh Naftali, the great-aunt of 4-year-old Abigail Edan, who was kidnapped by Hamas and released in November after 50 days in captivity. Abigail’s parents were murdered on October 7. Naftali was speaking on Capitol Hill, alongside Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other senators. “After 104 days…we need to make sure that Israel is put under the pressure to make a deal to stop this war and bring home these hostages.”

This call for the United States to pressure the Netanyahu government has been echoed in private meetings as well. Representatives of the families have also made the appeal to leaders in the American Jewish community, asking them to use whatever leverage they have to influence the Israeli government to prioritize hostage release over continuing the war.

5. Was Israel a Factor in Iowa? The Voters Speak

This week brings the second round of voting in the Republican primaries, this time in New Hampshire. Two are left in the race: Donald Trump, who crushed the Iowa caucuses with an unprecedented 50 percent victory, and Nikki Haley, who had been running neck and neck with Ron DeSantis for  second place before he left the race Sunday.

Last week in Iowa, all three candidates spoke about their support for Israel. But did it matter? I spoke to voters while touring frigid Iowa last week. Here are a few voices:

Julie Cramer was sitting in the front row of her caucus meeting site in West Des Moines last Tuesday. She cares deeply about Israel and believes all voters should. “I would never vote for a candidate who doesn’t support Israel,” she said. When it came time to vote, Cramer and her husband Gary were the only two votes cast in this caucus for the least known candidate, Ryan Binkley (a Texas pastor and businessman who has reportedly sunk more than $8 million of his own money into his longshot presidential campaign). They really dislike Trump. Before heading out into the minus-19-degree night, Julie sought me out in the crowd. “I hope your family in Israel is okay,” she said. “Tell them we are praying for them.” 

Kathy Curtanites from Perry, Iowa, came to Donald Trump’s final rally in Indianola wearing two Trump hats, one over the other. The first belonged to her late mother and the second marked her as a caucus captain. “One of the biggest things is that he got us out of that horrible Iran deal,” she said when asked why she supports the former president. “Another thing is that he moved the embassy [in Israel] to Jerusalem. He’s been so strong against Iran, strong with world foreign affairs.” Kathy had no doubts about her choice for 2024. “He says silly things sometimes, but he does really great things.”

Steve, a native of Ames, Iowa, showed up for Nikki Haley’s event at a barbecue joint in his town ready to give a final cheer for his favorite candidate. “You know what? She stands with Israel and I stand with Israel as well. They’re God’s chosen people,” he said when asked what he liked about the former UN ambassador. “There are many believers in our country who stand with Israel and there are many people who think that Israel is an important issue in this election,” Steve added.

Top Image: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA) / IDF / FreeVectorMaps.com

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