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MIXED MESSAGES

White House, Senate Dems deliver conflicting messages on new military aid conditions

Senate progressives described the new policy as a major step prompted by Israel’s operations, while the White House downplayed its significance

Kelly Bell photography

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

The White House and progressive allies in the Senate are sending mixed messages about a new policy affecting U.S. military assistance to foreign nations, with the senators saying the new policy is meant to put leverage on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Biden administration officials are downplaying its significance and arguing it has nothing to do with Israel specifically.

The group of Senate Democrats who pushed the White House to implement a memorandum imposing human rights and humanitarian aid-related conditions on all U.S. military aid said Friday that they see the new policy as a major step that introduces new restrictions and guidelines. They described the memo as prompted in significant part by Israel’s military activity in Gaza.

The White House, meanwhile, is arguing that the policy isn’t actually a big deal or a significant change. Biden administration officials on Friday repeatedly asserted that the policy is not linked to concerns about any particular country, including Israel — even as the senators with whom the White House drafted the memo specifically name Israel as its impetus. 

The divergent messaging comes as the White House has sought to manage a fragile coalition of Democrats, seeking to continue to woo pro-Israel Jewish voters while also mollifying Muslim Americans who disagree with Biden’s support for Israel in its war with Hamas. On Thursday, several senior administration officials met with Muslim community leaders in Michigan, including a controversial activist who has praised Hamas and Hezbollah.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) described the memorandum as “truly historic” and “a very big deal.” While there are existing provisions in U.S. law that address the requirements in the new memorandum, Van Hollen said that “they are currently more sentiment than substance, they’re more rhetoric than reality,” without the new policy. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said that existing law lacked “teeth.”

Van Hollen organized a press conference to discuss the policy on Friday alongside Merkley and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ed Markey (D-MA), Tina Smith (D-MN) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA).

The senators were some of those who were involved in discussions with the White House on the issue and among the 18 lawmakers who co-sponsored an amendment to the supplemental aid bill for Israel and other allies that mirrored what ultimately became the White House policy.

The senators said that the new requirement for written guarantees that aid recipients will comply with international law and U.S. aid efforts, and the oversight and accountability measures in the policy, should be seen as substantial changes to previous U.S. practices. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called the policy a “sea change in terms of how we approach U.S. military aid and its impact on civilians.”

The White House offered very different framing on Friday. 

“We are not imposing new standards for military aid. That’s not what is in this memo. Instead, we are spelling out publicly the existing standards by the international law including the law of armed conflict,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday. She acknowledged that the memo creates a new annual report to Congress about the issue. 

She said the U.S. has briefed Israel on the new reporting requirements. “They reiterated their willingness to provide these types of assurances,” Jean-Pierre said. 

“We’re not issuing this because we think any country or countries are violating these standards. If we did, you’d have heard it about long ago — and seen the consequences,” a senior Biden administration official told JI.

AIPAC forcefully rejected the new policy, describing it as “an unnecessary directive that imposes new requirements on Israel and our other most important allies,” insisting that Israel is already “in compliance with international law.”

“As Israel continues its battle against Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Iranian proxies, our focus should be on support for our ally,” AIPAC’s statement continued.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the policy “anti-Israel” and “shortsighted,” arguing that it prioritizes “virtue signaling to political constituencies over the security needs of the United States and its allies.” 

He said the “burdensome reporting requirements” will delay security assistance to U.S. partners, while slamming the administration for failing to consult with relevant congressional committees before announcing the policy, demonstrating “blatant disregard for the role of Congress.”

While the restrictions apply to U.S. military aid globally, some of the lawmakers who worked on the policy were not shy about the fact that their push was driven by concerns about Israel’s military operations.

“It is not a surprise to anyone in this room that the factor that has motivated this effort… are the conditions in Gaza, the way American weapons have been used in Gaza, the way Israel has restricted aid into Gaza,” Merkley said.

Warren described the new memorandum as a “critical move” to push the parties in the conflict toward peace and a two-state solution.

The memorandum “will give President Biden and the United States more tools and more leverage to ensure that any country, including countries currently engaged in armed conflict, like the Netanyahu government in Gaza, more tools to assure that U.S. military assistance complies with American values and American interests,” Van Hollen said, reiterating sentiments he had expressed when the memorandum was first announced.

Van Hollen also urged Israel to call off its plans for military operations inside Rafah, where, reportedly, more than 1 million displaced Gaza civilians have fled during the war.

While some of the lawmakers acknowledged that Israel has faced a difficult task in responding to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and combating terrorist groups that seek Israel’s destruction, due to Hamas’ practices of hiding among civilians, they said Israel’s military campaign had still been unacceptable.

“You can have a just war, but it needs to be fought justly,” Van Hollen said. “You cannot have a situation, as my colleagues have said, in Gaza, where you see these extremely high levels of civilian casualties. As others have said, it is true that Hamas uses the despicable tactic of hiding among the civilian population, but that does not absolve the obligation to minimize civilian harm.”

Lawmakers described Van Hollen, the lead sponsor of the legislation that set forth similar policies to the amendment, as the key driving force behind the effort that spawned the White House memorandum.

Kaine said that talks with the White House on the issue began at the end of December, and said that, despite expecting pushback, “the door was really open” on these negotiations.

“Chris, you walked into this thinking you might get an amendment in the supplemental, and instead you get something much broader than that,” Kaine continued.

“They not only listened, but they put this policy into action,” Van Hollen added.

The policy would likely not have had sufficient support to be included in the final supplemental bill — a fact to which Markey alluded during the press conference. 

The administration’s decision to unilaterally issue the memorandum both sidesteps a contentious Senate vote that could have divided Democrats, but also represents a major concession from the White House to Democrats who’ve been deeply critical of Israel’s military operations.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who has been outspoken against conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, told Jewish Insider he hadn’t seen the new memorandum. But he described Biden’s comments calling Israel’s operations in Gaza as “over the top” as reasonable.

“There is good reason for President Biden to be impatient with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strategic and tactical approach,” Blumethal said. “I don’t know whether I would have used the words ‘over the top,’ But his frustration is understandable, given that his Secretary of State left a meeting with Netanyahu and before his plane even landed in the United States, Netanyahu was saying, in effect, ‘I’m not listening to the administration.’”

He predicted there will be “increasing pressure” on Netanyahu’s backers in Israel’s right wing to “really rethink some of what’s happening especially in the West Bank.”

So far, outside of Congress, some progressives are framing the new memorandum as a potential positive step for their goals of reining or ending in Israel’s military campaign and U.S. aid to Israel, but other critics of Israel are describing it as potentially having little impact or being a half-measure — depending on how, or whether, it’s enforced.

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