Nov 28, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Israel aid debate flares up among Senate Democrats

Sen. Bernie Sanders. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Senate Democrats are set to spend the week debating whether to condition military assistance to Israel on a set of demands addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Why it matters: The discourse is heating up as senators in both parties negotiate the scope of an emergency aid package not only to Israel, but potentially including funds for Ukraine, Taiwan and border security.

Driving the news: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have called for conditioning aid.

  • Sanders has floated demands for Israel to end its "indiscriminate bombing" of Gaza, allow aid into the region and take other steps to lay the groundwork for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
  • Other progressives are open to the idea. "We've got to have the debate," Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told Axios, adding, "You can't have that many civilian casualties as part of the Netanyahu war plan."

The other side: More pro-Israel Democratic senators were dismissive of the push to condition aid.

  • "I'm not sure that would come of that now," Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told Axios.
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Axios "I don't think you're going to see conditionality" beyond the typical but more narrow legislative practice of specifying the purposes for which aid funding can and cannot be used.
  • "I think it's important to be clear here that Israel was violently attacked on Oct. 7 ... and they have a right to defend themselves," said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).
  • Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters he is opposed to conditioning aid.

Zoom in: Senate Democrats on both sides of the debate, including Sanders and Welch, huddled with a group of senior Israeli military officials in a room just off the Senate floor on Monday night.

  • Kelly said the discussion, organized by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), focused on details of Israel's military operations, with the officials also fielding questions on civilian casualties and post-war plans.
  • A Duckworth spokesperson told Axios that she organized the meeting so senators "could hear directly about Israel's strategy for the Israel-Hamas war and for addressing as well as ultimately ending the humanitarian crisis in Gaza."
  • "We provide a lot of aid, it's important for us to have these discussions and get the answers that we need," Kelly said.

What we're watching: Sanders told Axios on Monday he expects the debate over conditioning aid "will come up" at Senate Democrats' weekly lunch on Tuesday.

  • "I think there's going to be discussion about it all week long," said Kaine, noting that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that the Senate could consider a supplemental aid package as soon as next week.

Reality check: The bill will need bipartisan support to pass the Senate, let alone the Republican-controlled House, and the debate over the package is largely focused on how to mollify growing skepticism of Ukraine aid in some corners of the GOP.

  • "I think it depends a lot on if this border piece comes together. We still have hopes and expectations that it will," said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
  • "There's got to be humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza, we have the Ukraine piece, we have the disaster relief piece, there's some Indo-Pacific [funding]," said Kaine. "That's all going to be up for grabs this week."
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