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The theme of the J Street conference was conditioning aid to Israel, but where’s the action?

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A major theme has emerged at this year’s annual J Street conference: conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish nonprofit, set the tone on the first day of the conference. “Our aid is not intended to be a blank check,” he declared. At a press conference the next day, he revealed that the group would push for legislation that regulates how aid money is used by Israel.

The first Democratic presidential candidate to be interviewed at the event was Senator Amy Klobuchar. Former Obama administration officials Ben Rhodes and Tommy Vietor asked the Minnesota centrist whether she would leverage aid money in an effort to pressure Israel. “I think we are at this moment and time where it is not a good idea to negotiate these things right now,” she responded before moving the subject to a broader discussion about President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Klobuchar was the only candidate who seemingly dodged the question. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet said he would have to weigh the validity of such moves. Julian Castro said he was prepared to condition aid to Israel in order to stop a potential annexation of the West Bank. “My hope is that we can work like crazy so we don’t get to that point,” said Castro, “I would not take it off the table. I want to focus on what we can do hopefully with a new government, and a new president.”

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg doubled down on his earlier embrace of the same annexation point, but this time he seemed to imply that he might be open to conditioning aid over settlement expansion as well. “We need to make sure that any such cooperation and funding is going to things that are compatible with U.S. objectives and U.S. law,” he said, “It is a reminder that we need to have the visibility to know whether U.S. funds are being used in a way that are not compatible with U.S. policy.”

The most forceful endorsement of such policies came from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who also received the loudest cheers from the audience.) Not only did he endorse the idea of conditioning aid, he also indicated that some of the aid should immediately go towards Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. “My solution is to say to Israel: you get $3.8 billion every year, if you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza, in fact I think it is fair to say that some of that should go right now into humanitarian aid,” said Sanders.

Last week presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she’d be open to conditioning aid over the issue of settlement expansion. “Right now, Netanyahu says he is going to take Israel in a direction of increasing settlements, [but] that does not move us in the direction of a two-state solution. It is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction, then everything is on the table…Everything is on the table.”

J Street has been weighing the decision to support such proposals for months now. “If the United States Congress wants to put into place legislation that authorizes the aid, ‘none of the funds in this section shall be used for XYZ’ – that seems to be a very fair thing to say,” Ben-Ami told The Forward. “The United States should not want to see its taxpayer dollars used in any way for the support of activities that implement a decision to annex” the West Bank.”

Despite these sentiments, J Street has yet to come out in support of H.R.2407, a bill that was introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) in April. The legislation would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to assure that none of the aid given to Israel (or any other country) could be used to detain children. According to a July Intercept piece on the legislation, the group is apprehensive about supporting such a measure. “Advocates for the bill have heard from congressional staffers that J Street is skeptical about using the Leahy Law to bar aid because, in J Street’s eyes, the law should be applied to only the most extreme human rights violations like mass sexual violence, massacres, or ethnic cleansing,” reported Alex Kane and Ryan Grim.

A previous version of McCollum’s bill was introduced in 2017, but died at the end of that congressional session. The current bill has just 22 co-sponsors and still lacks a companion piece of legislation in the Senate despite the fact that McCollum’s office have asked Senators like Warren and Sanders to introduce one.

The overarching theme of the conference lines up with a wider shift that seems to be happening throughout the country. A recent report from the progressive think tank Data for Progress shows that 46% of voters support conditioning aid to Israel to further human rights in the region. The number is 65% for Democratic voters. An October 25 report from the centrist Center for American Progress (CAP) ended up with even higher numbers: 56% of voters say they’d condition aid if the Israeli government continues to expand settlements or ends up annexing the West Bank. That number goes up to 71% when applied to Democratic voters and 55% for independents.

Michael Arria

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss.

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5 Responses

  1. Misterioso on October 29, 2019, 10:56 am

    “Bernie Sanders Just Proved It’s A New Era For How Democratic Candidates Talk About Israel”

    “Trump’s rivals are eager to criticize his cozy relationship with hard-line politicians in Israel — and push for new negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”

    By Akbar Shahid Ahmed, HuffPost, US, Oct. 28/19

    WASHINGTON ― “Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) showed just how far successors to President Donald Trump may go to reshape the U.S. relationship with Israel and the Palestinians, taking the stage at a Jewish American group’s conference on Monday to deliver impassioned remarks about his sympathy for Palestinians and issue a proposal that would have once been considered political suicide.

    ″’$3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche,’ Sanders said, referring to the amount of military aid Washington provides Israel each year. ‘If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza… I think it is fair to say that some of that $3.8 billion should go right now into humanitarian aid.’

    “Until recently, U.S. politicians of all stripes mostly avoided proposing policy changes to respond to Israel’s decade-plus-long ‘collective punishment’ blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for fear of being painted as sympathetic to the militant group.

    “Sanders’ remarks, delivered at the annual confab for J Street, which advocates for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, represent a top presidential candidate’s boldest departure yet from that norm. But they’re only the latest step in an evolutionary process for the Democratic Party. In the past nine months, Democratic 2020 contenders have one by one warmed to putting conditions on American security assistance in order to push Israeli officials to negotiate with the Palestinians. They’ve mulled blocking aid from being used in violations of international law, such as annexing Palestinian land. And they’ve clearly committed themselves to using new tactics to resurrect the decades-old push for two independent states, Israel and Palestine.

    “So perhaps it should be no surprise that Sanders’ proposal was greeted by cheers ― and that it was largely treated as just one more in a range of options for dealing with a human rights crisis. J Street officials didn’t feel the need to run damage control. Neither did Sanders’ campaign. And so far, his rivals for the Democratic nomination haven’t attacked him for his comments. At the end of former President Barack Obama’s time in office, Democrats regularly boasted about the massive new annual aid package he had secured for Israel. This is where they are now.”

    • Kay24 on October 29, 2019, 12:05 pm

      I guess Bernie Sanders is taking a huge risk politically to make a stand. A very welcome stand.
      No other politician, especially the candidates running for president, dare not incur the wrath of AIPAC and Israel. This is a huge step.

      • genesto on October 29, 2019, 1:10 pm

        I’m a volunteer for the Sanders campaign, but I have to admit he’s not nearly strong enough for my taste – at least, not yet – on Israel/Palestine.

        Nevertheless, he has come a long way just in the last few years by, in part, listening to the right people, James Zogby and Cornel West being among the most influential of his advisors. You are right in saying that he is showing courage in making politically risky pronouncements such as he did at the J Street conference. As far as we’ve come in being able to openly discuss this issue, Bernie is still ahead of the pack in pushing the discourse even further.

        Bottom line, among the major candidates, he is still the best we have on Israel/Palestine. By far.

    • just on October 29, 2019, 12:31 pm

      Israel’s Edelstein’s caca retort did not take long, Misterioso:

      “Israel’s Knesset Speaker to Bernie Sanders: ‘Stop Talking Nonsense’ …

      Israeli Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein slammed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for suggesting that U.S. military aid to Israel should be diverted toward humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip. Likud MK Edelstein said that Sanders should “stop talking nonsense,” adding that the Vermont senator’s assertion that Israel was responsible for conditions in Gaza was “absurd” in a tweet on Tuesday.

      Edelstein, a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, was responding to remarks that Sanders made at the J Street conference on Monday. The Vermon senator had suggested that the $3.8 billion dollars in U.S. military assistance to Israel could be “leveraged” to pressure Israel to move towards a two-state solution, and that he believed aid should instead be put towards improving living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza “right now.”

      In his tweets addressed to Sanders, Edelstein said that while speaking to European Union representatives visiting the Knesset on Monday, “I told them about the absurd claims regarding the economic situation in the Gaza Strip,” adding that “it’s time to put an end to these claims.”

      Hamas leaders in Gaza, he said, “have all the necessary means – they use the money earmarked for the public benefit in order to attack the State of Israel.”

      Edelstein included a video of his Monday discussion with the EU representatives, in which he told them that Hamas, is a “terror organization” that doesn’t “know how to govern” and blamed them for poor living conditions in Gaza.

      “When someone says there are no means, I don’t accept it,” Edelstein said. The tunnels Hamas has built to infiltrate Israel clearly “cost millions,” as does their weaponry.

      “Every time he sees a Hamas rocket launched towards Israel,” Edelstein told the visiting diplomats, “I see food and diapers and medicine flying in the air.”

      While being interviewed onstage at the conference by the hosts of the podcast “Pod Save the World,” former National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor and former US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, Sanders gave his proposal for handling U.S. military aid to Israel and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

      “My solution is, to Israel, if you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza,” the Vermont senator said, calling the situation in the Strip “absolutely inhumane. It is unacceptable. It is unsustainable.”

      Sanders, who spoke alongside other 2020 Democratic hopefuls, added that the U.S. assistance that Israel is granted “is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government, or for that matter to any government at all. We have a right to demand respect for human rights and democracy.””

      “food and diapers and medicine flying in the air”!!! It’s crazy time again~ some of the contributors here will be sure to repeat this ad nauseam in the not too distant future.

      I believe in sanctioning Israel and witholding all money, too. I believe in repairing Gaza after the US and their allies allowed and enabled the destruction so many times. without rebuilding. I believe in justice, freedom, and equality for all those trapped inside and out.

      One other thing that distinguishes Sanders from anyone else is this:

      “When it comes to peace in the Middle East, “I believe not only in the right of Israel to exist, but to exist in peace and security. What I also believe is that the Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security,” Sanders said in an endorsement of J Street’s approach to Israel policy.”

      He’s the ONLY one who ever mentions Palestinian security~ security that has never been. For me, that is essential. Of course they need security from their occupiers and oppressors. For years all I have read and heard are concerns about nuclear- armed Israel’s security above all else, and at the expense of Palestinian lives and land.

  2. echinococcus on October 29, 2019, 4:57 pm

    Genesto and Kate,

    “Bottom line, among the major candidates, he is still the best we have on Israel/Palestine. By far.”

    Sad but true.
    The only conclusion is, and has been for so many years, that any *major candidates are toxic, fecal material. The corollary is that anyone who thinks of voting for a *major candidate is an accessory before the fact, of war of aggression, police state and other crimes upon which all *major candidates, including your old dishonest old Zionist mountebank, are perfectly in agreement.

    But you knew that already. Also, you are perfectly aware that there is always one or more candidates wo aren’t “major” but relatively acceptable on Palestine. You Dims can’t say you weren’t warned, again and again. Continue digging that hole for all others, too.

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