Progressive Democrats embrace calls to cut off aid to Israel

As calls for conditioning aid to Israel have gained traction among Democrats, the left wing has gone further

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) (C) talks to reporters with (L-R) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol

Before the current war in Gaza, calls to place conditions on U.S. military assistance to Israel were largely the purview of the far-left fringe. But amid Israel’s military campaign to root out Hamas, with a mounting civilian death toll and worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza, the effort has become increasingly common among Democrats.

And as the rhetoric has shifted, the left wing’s position has also moved further.

After having successfully pressed the White House to implement new, global conditions on foreign arms sales, some on the left are calling for the U.S. to threaten to or immediately suspend military aid to Israel entirely. 

Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) led 34 House Democrats on a letter warning against an Israeli invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, arguing that such an operation would likely violate U.S. arms sales policy.

“As contemplated by the Administration’s policy, a ground invasion that runs counter to the specific principles outlined in NSM-20 should not be supported by U.S. taxpayer-funded assistance,” the letter reads, referring to the new arms sales policy issued by the administration placing human rights and humanitarian aid-related conditions on arms sales to all U.S. allies.

The letter argues that any operation in Rafah would endanger hostages and worsen the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and effectively calls for the U.S. to suspend military aid to Israel in the event of an invasion of Rafah.

Some progressive Senate Democrats have staked out similar positions. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has also said aid should be cut off in the event of a Rafah invasion. 

Sens. Peter Welch (D-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have said military assistance needs to be cut off immediately unless Israel increases humanitarian aid access in Gaza. They argued that Israel’s alleged obstruction of aid already violates existing arms sales restrictions.

“It’s long past time for the United States to stop supporting, by commission and omission, actions that are inconsistent with our principles and our policies and which make peace between Israelis and Palestinians ever more elusive, ever more difficult to achieve,” Welch said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

These direct calls to suspend U.S. military aid to Israel have come as discussions on conditioning aid to Israel have become increasingly normalized among rank-and-file Democrats. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) — a close ally of President Joe Biden — for instance, said he’d support additional conditions on aid to Israel if it proceeds with an operation in Rafah without a robust humanitarian strategy.

Van Hollen was the key driving force behind the military aid memorandum referenced in the House letter. He organized a group of nearly 20 Senate Democrats to push for legislation to place conditions on U.S. emergency aid to Israel and other countries, although the supporters of that amendment were clear that their efforts were prompted by concerns about Israel.

That push ultimately spawned the White House memorandum, reportedly part of an effort to sidestep a contentious Senate vote that would have fractured the Democratic caucus. 

But Van Hollen has recently argued that issuing the memorandum requiring written assurances from Israel that it will comply with U.S. humanitarian efforts and international law is not enough, and that the U.S. must, per U.S. law, suspend aid.

Congressional scrutiny of U.S. aid to Israel is likely to only grow further in the coming days, following reporting from The Washington Post that the U.S. has made a series of more than 100 arms sales that fall below the dollar-amount threshold for congressional notification and review.

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