The administration’s case

Blinken, Austin defend Biden’s foreign aid request on Capitol Hill

‘For our adversaries… this is all one fight. And we have to respond in a way that recognizes that,’ Blinken said

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(L-R) Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testify during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill October 31, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

As House Republicans move forward with a plan to split up President Joe Biden’s proposed aid package to Israel, Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific and the Palestinians, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of State Lloyd Austin came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to argue the administration’s case for funding the bill in its entirety.

Blinken and Austin, testifying to the Senate Appropriations Committee, highlighted links between Russia, Hamas and Iran, as well as the lessons China would take away from the outcome of both conflicts. A failure to support any of its allies could open a front to a larger war as well as signal that the U.S. is unreliable, they argued.

“It’s important to understand that the elements of this request work together as a package,” Blinken said, referencing their implications for defense industrial production. “For our adversaries… this is all one fight. And we have to respond in a way that recognizes that. If we start to peel off pieces of this package, they’ll see that. They’ll understand that we are playing whack-a-mole, while they cooperate increasingly and pose an ever-greater threat to our security as well as that of our partners.”

The officials also defended the administration’s request for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, describing it as a matter of life and death in Gaza, as well as a strategic necessity for Israel and the U.S.

“I think it’s profoundly who we are to want to do everything we can to assist [innocents], to try to lift some of the burden that they’re bearing from being caught in the midst of conflict,” Blinken said. “At the same time, it’s vitally important as a strategic proposition… We’ve seen Hamas and other groups play the siren song of nihilism to try and attract people to their perverted cause. We want to make sure that we have a better response.”

Republicans have been ramping up criticism of such aid, and it is not included in the House’s Israel-only proposal. Republicans argue that any aid to Gaza will inevitably benefit Hamas, either directly through theft and diversion, or indirectly. 

On Tuesday, Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Pete Ricketts (R-NE) introduced a bill to cut off aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, freeze any aid to Gaza and the West Bank until Hamas and other terrorist groups are defeated and revise the Taylor Force Act to prevent aid that might indirectly benefit the Palestinian Authority. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) led 11 colleagues on a letter calling for the Senate not to approve requested funds for Gaza until Hamas is removed as the governing body in Gaza.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) separately introduced a bill that would prohibit aid to Gaza; impose sweeping sanctions on Hamas, its members and affiliates and Iran; freeze Iranian funds; sanction those in countries like Turkey and Qatar that provide services to Hamas leaders and assessments of those allied countries as potential state sponsors of terrorism.

Asked repeatedly, Blinken would not guarantee that no U.S. taxpayer funds had or would benefit Hamas.

“What I guarantee is that we take every possible precaution to ensure that these resources are not diverted,” he said.

He said that all aid going through Egypt into Gaza is checked by both Israel and Egypt before it enters Gaza, that the U.S. and others have the ability to monitor the aid once it enters Gaza and that they contact recipients to ensure that the aid reaches its intended destination.

In spite of a since-retracted U.N. statement alleging that Hamas had raided a U.N. aid facility and stolen aid, Blinken said that neither Israel nor the U.N. have reported thefts and that the “overwhelming majority of this assistance thus far is getting to the people who need it, and we need more.”

Blinken said that there is a particularly urgent and significant need for fuel in Gaza, and that the U.S. is working with its partners to provide such aid in a way that will not be vulnerable to Hamas theft. Hamas, he noted, has its own fuel stockpile. 

“If it cared a whit about the people of Gaza, it would make sure itself that it used that fuel to have the hospitals be able to operate, the incubators stay turned on,” Blinken said. “But of course it doesn’t. And we have an obligation to do everything we can, if Hamas is not going to do it, to look out for people in Gaza.”

Meanwhile,  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and five other progressive Democrats argued that any supplemental package for foreign policy issues should “include an equal amount of funding” to address domestic issues including childcare, health care, housing, the opioid crisis, food insecurity and natural disasters. The administration has submitted a separate supplemental request for such issues.

The Cabinet secretaries said they’ve encouraged Israel to advance discussions on a postwar plan for Gaza, and are actively working with Israel and other regional partners on formulating such a plan. 

“If you don’t do things to address the underlying causes of instability then you create a bigger problem, or you have a lasting problem that will just go on forever and ever,” Austin said.

Blinken said that neither continued Hamas rule nor Israeli control of Gaza are acceptable long-term solutions, and that the ideal outcome would be an “effective and revitalized” Palestinian Authority taking over governance in Gaza.

But, he added, it’s not clear that will be possible in the short term. He said that an interim arrangement led by countries in the region and international agencies will likely be necessary.

“Ultimately, though, beyond that, what we come back to, what this administration believes… is the imperative of getting to two states for two peoples,” Blinken said. “That’s where you finally get the sustained security that a Jewish and democratic state of Israel needs and must have, and you also get the state that the Palestinians are entitled to.”

In response to questions about attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East by Iran and its proxies, Austin said that Iranian activity “has to change” and that the U.S. will not “tolerate” attacks on its forces.

“The protection of our troops is very important to me and the president,” Austin said. “And we maintain the right to respond at a place and time of our choosing. And we said and we’re serious about it.”

Blinken said that around 1,000 American citizens and their family members who wish to leave Gaza have been unable to do so, in addition to another 5,000 citizens of other countries. He blamed this situation on Hamas, which he said is blocking their departure through Egypt; he said that Egypt is not an impediment to their departure.

Both cabinet secretaries said that they’re working with Israeli allies to reinforce the importance of following international law in Israel’s offensive, as well as sharing the lessons learned from the U.S.’ own counterterrorism effort and on hostage rescue.

“The things that you do on a battlefield could, if you’re not thoughtful about them, they could create a resistance to your effort that lasts for generations,” Austin said. “We fully understand that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people, and we mourn the loss of Palestinian civilians. I’ve repeatedly made clear to Israeli leaders that protecting civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”

They reiterated the administration’s support for temporary humanitarian pauses in the fighting.

But they also emphasized that they continue to believe that Israel has a right and obligation to defend itself and ensure that another attack like Oct. 7 cannot happen again and that the U.S. does not support a cease-fire.

“No country could tolerate what Israel suffered on Oct. 7. And it’s extraordinary the extent to which that day has receded in memory for so many,” Blinken said, going on to describe in detail Hamas’ murders and torture of Israeli civilians. “I’ve been going to Israel professionally for 30 years and longer than that in my own life, and I had never seen what we’ve all seen and what Israel experienced on that day in terms of the impact that it had on that society.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) argued that the U.S. has a duty “not only to state the expectation, but to ensure that our support is used in a manner that complies with the laws of war and U.S. law.”

Lawmakers also pressed the officials on escalating violence in the West Bank. Blinken said that the PA is doing what it can to ensure security but lacks the resources to do so; he said the U.S. is asking Israel to provide additional resources to the PA. 

Blinken also said that the U.S. and Biden “have been very clear, very direct and very explicit about our concerns about extreme settler violence and the impact that that’s having on the West Bank, including adding fuel to the fire.”

Austin said he raises the issue in near-daily conversations with the Israeli defense minister, warning that the settler violence will “work against [Israel] going forward if they don’t make a decision to control this better.”

On the other side of the Capitol, House Republicans’ proposed funding bill, which would also cut funding from the IRS, continues to split the Congress.

House Democratic leadership is urging Democrats to vote against the bill, calling it a “cynical ploy” that “presents a false choice meant to ensure that wealthy tax cheats and corporations pay their fair share and funds to help our ally Israel defend itself” that would increase the deficit. Democrats said they expect the White House to say it would veto the GOP bill.

J Street, the progressive Israel advocacy group, is also urging a no vote on the legislation, which has also been criticized by Democratic Majority for Israel and the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Statements of support from pro-Israel Republicans have begun to trickle out, although many key GOP leaders and committee chairs have remained mum on the bill.

“The bottom line is that we need to support U.S. aid to our great ally, Israel. They must prevail against the barbaric attacks of Hamas,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), a moderate pro-Israel Republican, told Jewish Insider. “Not a single Republican voted to expand the IRS by 87,000 personnel. With a [$33 trillion] debt, resisting federal bureaucratic bloat and shifting spending to reduce our deficit makes sense.”

Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX) told JI that he was “proud” to support the bill, which “underscores our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and sends a powerful message that we will not tolerate acts of terror against our allies.”

Anti-Israel protesters who accused the administration officials of complicity in genocide and called for a ceasefire repeatedly interrupted the early portion of the hearing and were removed by Capitol Police.

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