on the hill

Pro-Israel Democrats distance themselves from Biden’s escalating rhetoric on Israel 

Rep. Ritchie Torres: ‘The removal of Hamas from power remains a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian peace’

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

NIR OZ, ISRAEL - APRIL 01: US Rep. Ritchie Torres along with a delegation from the Bronx visits the Bibas family house at Kibbutz Nir Oz on April 01, 2024 in Nir Oz, Israel.

Some pro-Israel Democrats distanced themselves from President Joe Biden and his administration’s escalating rhetoric on Israel on Thursday, in the wake of a call between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during which the president threatened policy changes unless the U.S. sees Israel take a new approach in Gaza.

During the call, which came amid the fallout from an Israeli strike that killed seven workers from the World Central Kitchen charity, the president told his Israeli counterpart that U.S. policy “will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action” on his requests for the war cabinet “to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.”

“If we don’t see changes from their side, there will have to be changes from our side,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters after the Biden-Netanyahu call. Secretary of State Tony Blinken used the same language at a press conference in Brussels. 

A readout of the call said Biden also urged an “immediate ceasefire” and called on Netanyahu to “empower his negotiators to conclude a [hostage] deal without delay” — which some have interpreted as a call for Israel to make greater concessions in the talks. The Prime Minister’s Office did not release their own readout of the call.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), who has been unapologetic about his support for Israel since Oct. 7, wrote on X, “In this war against Hamas — no conditions for Israel,” in response to the readout.

Asked if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would support conditions, a spokesperson pointed to his speech last month calling for new elections in Israel and describing Netanyahu as one of the “four major obstacles” to peace, noting that the majority leader did not call for conditions in his Senate address. 

Other pro-Israel Democrats distanced themselves from calls to condition aid to Israel and other tougher rhetoric from the administration, even as they declined to directly criticize Biden.

“Every conceivable effort should be made to minimize casualties and maximize humanitarian aid for Palestinians in distress. But any attempt to fundamentally undermine the US-Israel relationship will only serve to benefit Hamas, which perpetrated the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust — a fact that the world seems to have forgotten,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) said in a statement to Jewish Insider. “The removal of Hamas from power remains a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) told JI the U.S. must “remain fully committed to supporting our long-standing ally, Israel, as they move to take out the Hamas terrorists who brutally murdered innocent civilians on Oct. 7, and as they negotiate a deal for the release of the remaining hostages, including American hostages.”

Manning added that the return of the hostages is a necessary precondition for Israel to begin the process toward long-term peace.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) highlighted the administration’s support for unconditioned aid to Israel in the supplemental aid bill, while adding that he believes Israel is already complying with U.S. demands and law on humanitarian aid and civilian protection.

“War is chaotic, and urban warfare more so. I believe that Israel is doing as good a job as can be done, and is working hard to avoid civilian casualties,” he said in a statement to JI. “It is appropriate for Biden to insist that Israel comply with the international law of armed conflict and comply with the Leahy Law and other U.S. laws that require that the recipients of our weapons act appropriately. I believe Israel is meeting these standards.”

Sherman, in a series of posts on X, also called the World Central Kitchen workers “heroes” but implied that the international charity understood the security challenges it faced in Gaza. “Operating in a war zone at night poses unacceptable risks. Agencies shouldn’t do it and #Israel shouldn’t authorize it,” he said.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a Democratic pro-Israel leader in the House, walked a fine line discussing the administration’s recent rhetoric in an interview with JI.

Schneider described the Biden administration as “frustrated” with Netanyahu and his government, “and I think you saw that frustration come to a head today.” But he insisted that the administration “has been unflinching in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself,” and that “it would be folly” for Israel’s enemies to think that the U.S. would abandon it in its fight.”

He characterized the administration’s recent moves as expressing “reservations about how Israel is approaching the final phase” of the war, but not a shift in U.S. support for Israel’s defense.

He said he remains opposed to any conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, but also called it “a fair thing to say, in any relationship, there are expectations. We want to see certain steps taken and either until we see those steps or unless we see those steps, it’s going to affect what we do.”

Addressing the administration’s language around cease-fire talks, Schneider noted that Hamas, not Israel, has been the party that repeatedly rejected deals. “But I think it’s fair to look to Israel to say, ‘Help us get to this place where we can bring the hostages home and get aid into Gaza,’” he continued. “That’s distinct from saying give up the fight and let Hamas remain standing.”

Schneider described expanded humanitarian aid as necessary to “lay the groundwork for a better path” ahead and avoid a situation where Gaza becomes a failed state that would be even more unstable.

He also said he supports efforts to reach a pause in the war that would free hostages and allow increased humanitarian aid, but did not directly echo the administration’s call for an “immediate cease-fire,” emphasizing that Hamas must not remain in power after the war.

Outside of Israel’s staunchest defenders on the Hill, however, the World Central Kitchen strike is driving renewed calls for punitive measures toward Israel.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a once leading pro-Israel voice in the party who has become increasingly critical of its operations in Gaza, said on Thursday that he believes the U.S. is “at the point” where conditions on additional aid would be necessary if Netanyahu orders a large-scale operation in Rafah without humanitarian aid and protections.

“I’ve never said that before. I’ve never been here before. I’ve been a strong supporter of Israel the whole time I’ve served in Congress. We just appropriated another $3.3 billion of support in the last appropriations bill we did,” Coons, a close ally of Biden, told CNN. “The challenge is to make it clear that we support the Israeli people, that we want to and will continue to have a strong and close relationship with Israel, but that the tactics by which the current prime minister is making these decisions don’t reflect the best values of Israel or of the United States.”

Coons had previously indicated he’d support conditions on aid in the event of a full-scale Rafah invasion.

Israel announced later on Thursday that it would open an additional crossing into Gaza and port for humanitarian aid, which Coons called “great news.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), another staunch Israel supporter, would not say if the senator supported conditions on continued aid to Israel in the wake of the strike, instead saying in a statement to JI that, “Senator Casey believes the death of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers was a terrible tragedy and has strongly advocated for delivering much-needed food, medical supplies, and aid to civilians in Gaza.”

“His position has always been, and continues to be, that Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas terrorists, the hostages need to be released immediately, and much more needs to be done to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Casey spokeswoman Mairéad Lynn said.

A group of progressive House Democrats have been collecting signatures for a letter they plan to send to Biden and Blinken urging them to halt weapons transfers to Israel in the wake of the WCK strike. 

“In light of this incident, we strongly urge you to reconsider your recent decision to authorize the transfer of a new arms package to Israel, and to withhold this and any future offensive arms transfers until a full investigation into the airstrike is completed,” Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) wrote in the letter.

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