WASHINGTON: As a ceasefire 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 US 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 US to use its “substantial leverage” with its ally, the Vermont senator said.
“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 Israel.
Lawmakers of both major political parties for decades have embraced the US 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 Palestinian civilians.
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 US 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 US 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 said. 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 expectations.”
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 US demands to ease civilian suffering in Gaza, but agree to them.
Over the weekend, as an end to the ceasefire 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.