Nov 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Israel tries to reassure Democrats as aid debate rages

Palestinians in the Huzaa district of Khan Yunis, Gaza on Nov. 29, 2023. Photo: Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images.

In a series of meetings on Capitol Hill this week, Israeli military and Biden administration officials have tried to allay congressional Democrats' concerns about mounting civilian casualties in Gaza.

Why it matters: The gatherings come in the midst of a debate among Democrats about conditioning military aid to Israel on specific steps the country must take to protect innocent Palestinians.

Driving the news: After meeting with a group of Senate Democrats on Monday evening, senior Israeli Defense Force officials met with around a dozen Jewish House Democrats on Tuesday afternoon, according to several aides and members who were present.

  • The purpose of both meetings was to brief lawmakers on operational details of Israel's war effort against Hamas.
  • National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also huddled with Senate Democrats on Tuesday to respond to their letter seeking information on measures Israel is taking to protect civilians in Gaza.

The state of play: The debate taking place primarily among Senate Democrats is whether aid should be conditioned on demands that Israel not "indiscriminately" bomb Gaza, allow sufficient humanitarian aid into the region and lay the groundwork for a peaceful long-term resolution.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Axios he is "working on" a set of conditions on which he plans to force a vote.

What they're saying: House Democrats who met with the IDF told Axios the Israeli officials addressed many of their concerns about civilian casualties.

  • Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said the officials stressed "that the IDF has been very cautious in where it has dropped bombs and ... is trying to protect civilians."
  • "It's impossible to protect them all, but they have a great record of doing that. ... I think they made a good presentation," said Cohen.
  • "I did come away feeling more confident that they are taking great pains ... to protect as many civilians" as they can, said Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.).

The details: The IDF officials laid out ways in which Israel has tried to minimize civilian casualties, including dropping leaflets and calling Gazan civilians to urge them to evacuate before attacks, according to several members.

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who organized the Senate meeting, told Axios the officials also said "they intend, when they move into the South, to create safe zones" to protect civilians.
  • Sullivan, in his meeting, stressed Biden's opposition to conditionality and laid out ways in which he has been able to influence the Israeli government, according to senators at the meeting and another source familiar with the matter.

Yes, but: Senators are the ones the IDF really needs to convince, and, asked if senators with concerns about civilian casualties found the IDF's comments persuasive, Duckworth replied: "No."

  • Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who put out a statement after the IDF meeting calling for an "indefinite ceasefire" in the Israel-Hamas war, told Axios on Wednesday: "The main concern I have is the bombs. The bombing campaign is doing devastation to innocent civilians."
  • "I think there is a strong belief that much more could be done to reduce civilian casualties," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who led the meeting with Sullivan.

The bottom line: Any effort to impose conditions are going to be an uphill battle, as not only Republicans but many Democrats oppose doing so.

  • "The facts are that the president and his administration have impact, in a positive way, on the decisions made by the Israeli government," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), calling conditions "counterproductive" to that.
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a progressive who has voiced concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, told Axios: "I am not for conditioning aid."
Go deeper