Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hosted a luncheon Wednesday for Senate Democrats about the war between Israel and Hamas, four people with knowledge of the meeting said. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, spoke to lawmakers about these issues and confirmed that the meeting took place. Three other people said Telhami was a guest along with Tom Friedman of the New York Times and former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, none of whom immediately responded to requests for comment.
“Some senators raised conditions for military aid,” one of the people said.
The talks come as fighting in Gaza intensifies and the civilian death toll rises (some 11,000 dead, according to Hamas-led Gaza health authorities), raising questions among Israel’s traditional allies about the red lines for help.
Democrats’ unequivocal support for Israel’s military has been eroding in recent weeks, going beyond the skepticism progressives have already shown toward the administration’s uncompromising support for Israel. If more moderate Democrats join calls to condition aid to Israel, it could complicate President Joe Biden’s policy of firmly supporting the country in its retaliation against Hamas.
In the last week, humanitarian organizations say their offices have been bombed and staff killed as a result of the fighting. Medical facilities are also under siege and struggling with a lack of vital medical supplies.
Earlier this month, in a call to send more humanitarian assistance to Gaza, 13 Democratic senators said in a joint statement that “we have been closely following the war in Gaza and believe that much more must be done to protect civilian life. .. Failure to adequately protect non-combatant civilians risks a dramatic escalation of the conflict in the region and imposes serious damage on the prospects for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.”
If the hallway talks lead to legislative action, which would put immense pressure on the White House, it could force Biden to loosen his embrace of Israel as it retaliates against Hamas following the Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people. That would please progressives in Congress who want the United States to demand a ceasefire.
The Pentagon declined to comment. The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Earlier this month, Vice President Kamala Harris said that “we are not going to create any conditions on the support we are providing to Israel to defend itself.”
Democrats have not decided how, or even whether, they will push for conditions on military aid to Israel. But both lawmakers said current talks revolve around using existing authorities, such as invoking the Leahy Act, which prohibits sending funds to countries where there is credible information about human rights violations.
Israel receives around $3.8 billion annually from the United States for its military and missile defense systems. The Republican-led House of Representatives earlier this month passed a $14.3 billion relief bill that Biden threatened to veto because it did not include funding for Ukraine, among other priorities.
A former senior defense official, who was also granted anonymity to detail sensitive discussions, said the administration is “unlikely” to impose conditions on its aid to Israel.
“It is very difficult to condition military aid because how would you guarantee it and how would you build it? Especially in this case we are not in a position to really instruct a friend and ally,” said the former official. “Suggest them, yes. Urge them, yes, but not necessarily condition our help. “I think that would be a bridge too far.”
But the Biden administration has faced increasing pressure over the past week to respond to Israel’s actions (namely its operation at Gaza’s largest hospital, Shifa), as doctors say their patients, including newborns born, are at risk of dying.
Part of that pressure comes from America’s allies. Alicia Kearns, a Conservative member of the British parliament and chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said “it is absolutely vital that there are restrictions” on future military aid to Israel, pointing to the high rate of civilian casualties when Israel attacks a Hamas target. .
Israel has defended its operation at the hospital, claiming that Hamas has built tunnels and a command control center underneath. U.S. officials said Washington has its own intelligence that supports Israel’s claim. The operation appears to continue at the hospital, although communications within Gaza are limited.
The United States is in talks with the Israeli government about the possibility of establishing safe zones in southern Gaza that would allow humanitarian organizations to operate more freely and away from the crossfire. There are also ongoing talks between Israel and Hamas about a ceasefire, although those talks appear to have stalled in recent days.
Lara Seligman and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.