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More Democrats are talking about conditioning aid to Israel, but activists want to see some action in the Senate

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The unofficial theme of last week’s J Street conference was conditioning military aid to Israel. The group’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami kicked off the festivities by declaring, “Our aid is not intended to be a blank check” and that set the tone going forward. The Democratic candidates who attended the liberal, pro-Israel nonprofit’s annual event were all asked if they were prepared to do it under certain circumstances.

The inquires exposed a rift among the presidential hopefuls. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota dodged the question, but later said she’d oppose such cuts. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg reiterated previous declarations about blocking aid that Israel might use to annex the West Bank and seemed to indicate that he’d be open to doing the same thing in response to settlement expansion. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who has floated the idea of conditioning Israel’s military aid multiple times in the past) suggested that, not only should military aid to Israel be conditioned, but that some of it should also go towards the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Although Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren didn’t attend the conference, she shared a video message with the audience in which she indicated that she would also be willing to condition aid. “We must find ways to make tangible progress on the ground toward a two-state solution,” she said, “Sometimes that might mean finding ways to apply pressure and create consequences for problematic behavior as previous Democratic and Republican presidents have done. For example, if Israel’s government continues with steps to formally annex the West Bank, the United States should make it clear that none of our aid should be used to support annexation.” Those remarks came just days after Warren told a reporter that “everything is on the table” in relation to Israel.

Former vice president Joe Biden didn’t attend the conference either, but after the event he criticized the candidates who had floated the idea of cutting aid. “Look, I have been on record from very early on opposed to settlements, and I think it’s a mistake,” Biden told a reporter, “And Netanyahu knows my position. But the idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel, on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find it to be absolutely outrageous. Anyway, no I wouldn’t condition it and I think it’s a gigantic mistake. And I hope some of the candidates who are running with me for the nomination–I hope they misspoke or were taken out of context.”

Insofar as the subject of conditioning Israel’s aid has permeated mainstream political discourse, it’s remained largely hypothetical. Buttigieg and Warren have only threatened it in relation to things that Israel’s government might do in the future. Sanders has stated that some of the aid could be leveraged in an effort to promote respect towards the Palestinian population, but it’s unclear exactly what this would mean.

Despite the lack of specifics among the presidential candidates, a clear plan of action already exists in the House of Representatives. H.R.2407 is a bill that was introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) this past April. It would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to assure that U.S. aid wouldn’t be used to detain children in Israel, or any other country. The bill currently has 22 cosponsors, but no piece of companion legislation in the Senate.

Activists are now calling on progressive Senators like Sanders to embrace this opportunity and get behind a policy with actual teeth. Beth Miller, is Government Affairs Manager at JVP Action, Jewish Voice for Peace’s advocacy arm. “We are long overdue for a reckoning when it comes to why Israel gets an annual $3.8 billion blank check from the US government, ” she told Mondoweiss, “No child, anywhere, should ever be arrested from their homes in the middle of the night by armed soldiers, taken from their families and held in military detention where they are mistreated and abused, or coerced into signing confessions in a language they don’t understand. Yet these abuses are the norm for Palestinian children locked in Israeli military detention – and they are funded by US tax dollars.”

Miller pointed out that, while Sanders has discussed conditioning military aid more than any other candidate, he doesn’t have to wait until he’s president in order to act. “Through H.R. 2407, Congresswoman McCollum is taking a bold first step to protect Palestinian children and hold Israel accountable,” said Miller, “As a progressive champion and one of the few senators who has spoken out against Israel’s human rights violations, Senator Sanders is uniquely positioned to keep pushing this conversation.”

In July, The Intercept reported that McCollum’s office had sent a letter to Sanders, asking him to introduce the legislation, but received no response. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) (who have all endorsed Sanders’ presidential campaign over the last few weeks) are cosponsors of H.R. 2407.

JVP Action has launched a petition that’s addressed to all the Senators currently running for the Democratic nomination, calling on them to introduce a companion bill. “We, the undersigned, are calling on you to take a stand against Israel’s ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children in military detention by introducing Senate legislation to ensure no U.S. military funding goes toward the military detention and prosecution of children,” it reads, “As you run for the highest office in the land, this is how you can make clear that your progressive values apply universally with no exceptions.”

As for J Street, the group’s stance on conditioning aid doesn’t extend to McCollum’s legislation. At a press conference during last week’s events, Ben-Ami said that he agrees with the bill in principle, but doesn’t support it as currently drafted because it applies a provision that is commonly used to target acts of genocide and mass killing.

Brad Parker is a senior adviser for policy and advocacy at Defense for Children International Palestine, a group that has fought hard to pass the McCollum bill. He told Mondoweiss that while the political reality shifting, it will take more activism for a companion bill to develop. “Talking about conditioning military assistance to Israel is seemingly now a mainstream progressive Democratic position, however, despite the rhetoric, I don’t think the political will exists to actually introduce and move forward a concrete, accountability-focused policy vehicle in the Senate,” said Parker, “There is work to do that will help force this change.”

Recent polls indicate that Democratic voters are already far ahead of lawmakers on this issue. A survey conducted by the Center for American Progress found that 71% of the party’s voters support conditioning aid to Israel if the country continues to expand its settlements or annexes the West Bank.

Michael Arria

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

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5 Responses

  1. Maghlawatan on November 6, 2019, 11:10 pm

    Millennials understand that Israel is evil.
    The Dersh and his cohort will die. The GOP
    will collapse. Israel will learn that great powers don’t have friends. They have interests.
    And mutant Zionism is in nobody’s interest.

  2. JWalters on November 7, 2019, 4:22 am

    And the reason for all the reluctance in Congress? That soldier’s stranglehold on that Palestinian kid in the photo, as Chris Hedges explains, is a consequence of
    “Israel’s Stranglehold on American Politics”
    https://www.truthdig.com/articles/israels-stranglehold-on-american-politics/

  3. Misterioso on November 7, 2019, 8:56 am

    http://www.unz.com/pgiraldi/we-are-all-palestinians-2/

    “We Are All Palestinians”
    “Some in congress are beginning to see the light” the Unz Review, by Philip Giraldi, Nov. 5/19

    “In spite of the fact that Israeli snipers continue to shoot scores of unarmed protesting Gazans every Friday with virtually no coverage from the media, there are some signs that the ability of Israel and its friends to control the narrative regarding the Jewish state’s appalling human rights violations is beginning to weaken. To be sure, The Lobby still has sharp teeth and is prepared to use them as in last week’s report of a Florida high school principal with 26 years of experience and an otherwise impeccable record who was fired because he said that ‘Not everyone believes in the holocaust.’

    “Questioning the established view of Israel is long overdue. It was first challenged by Illinois ex-congressman Paul Findley in his 1985 book They Dare to Speak: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby, but received a considerable boost when two leading academics John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard wrote The Israel Lobby And U.S. Foreign Policy in 2006. Virtually overnight it became acceptable in some circles to begin to discuss the powerful influence that the Israel Lobby has over foreign policy formulation in the United States. More recently, the final taboo was broken when two junior congresswomen began to talk about Israel’s baleful influence and linked it to its obvious source: the Benjamins. Jews and money and political power exercised on behalf of Israel, something that had been clear for many years but forbidden territory, suddenly became a hotly debated issue, even in some of the mainstream media.

    “Talking about money and Israel has also freed up some other lines of inquiry. Liberal Democratic critics of the Jewish state’s human rights record, who were shut out by the party leadership at the 2016 nominating convention, have started to speak out and, surprisingly, some of the candidates for the 2020 nomination have begun to test the waters by suggesting that Israel’s behavior just might be a whole lot better.

    “The recently concluded J Street conference demonstrated that loving Israel and all its works is hardly a rock-solid bipartisan issue any more, at least for many Democrats who actually believe in principles like freedom of speech and democracy. J Street is a relatively liberal Jewish group that promotes itself as being pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-American. It keeps pushing a two-state solution for Palestine-Israel, a ship that has sailed long ago because expanding Israeli settlements have made such an outcome inconceivable. Many, including myself, regard J Street as a gatekeeper for Israel as it is frequently rather timid in its criticisms, but it is useful to have its voice out there.

    “This year’s J Street conference actually considered cutting U.S. military aid to Israel to force it to take steps to end its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. It’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami led the discussion by observing that ‘Our aid is not intended to be a blank check.’ Some Democratic Party speaker/participants like Senator Amy Klobuchar predictably dodged the issue by saying ‘I think we are at this moment and time where it is not a good idea to negotiate these things right now,’ but Senator Michael Bennet and Julian Castro said that they would consider such a step. Castro noted that it might be used if Israel sought to annex the West Bank.

    “South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg agreed and was also open to cutting aid to stop settlement expansion, but to no one’s surprise the most powerful endorsement of a shift in policy came from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who also reportedly received the loudest cheers from the mostly young audience. Sanders suggested that part of the current U.S. assistance should immediately go to help alleviate 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.’

    “There have also been suggestions of possible funding options made by other Democrats who were not at the J Street conference. Last week presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said that ‘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.’

    “Some Democrats who have benefited particularly from the Benjamins remain unconvinced, however, believing as they do that Israel has a permanent license to tap the U.S. treasury. Reliable Zionist toady Joe Biden, who was also not at J Street and probably would not be caught dead near it, responded to a question on cutting aid by saying that ‘…the idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel, on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find it to be absolutely outrageous. Anyway, no I wouldn’t condition it and I think it’s a gigantic mistake.’

    “Coming at the Israel human rights issue from another direction is H.R.2407, a bill introduced by Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) in April. The legislation would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to ensure that none of the aid given to Israel could be used to arrest and detain children. An earlier version of McCollum’s bill in 2017 died at the end of that congressional session and this year’s bill will likely suffer a similar fate, but it is a sign that perceptions are changing, even in a largely bought and subservient Congress.

    “Unfortunately the Trump Administration continues to embrace Israel ever more tightly and it is hard to find a Republican politician who will in any way criticize the special relationship even when it manifestly serves no U.S. interest. The White House continues to promote its completely dead peace plan, though it is on hold until the upcoming Israeli election in December. In any event, everyone involved in the planning process as part of the team assembled by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is both Jewish and Zionist, as are most of the relevant players at the state department like Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker. The U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman works harder at being an apologist for the Jewish state’s many crimes more than as a representative for American interests. Gentiles who are at least peripherally engaged in Middle Eastern developments like Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence tend to be Christian Zionists, meaning that there is little room for dissenting views and a disengaged Donald Trump often seems to be going along for the ride, though he understands that pandering to Israel is certainly a lot easier than opposing it.

    “One might reasonably suggest that even though change is in the air, the process of disencumbering from the Israeli grip will be both long and painful. For the present, the U.S. government policy on the Middle East is both shaped and managed by Zionists working on behalf of Israel both from inside and outside the system. That is one compelling reason why the handling of the Palestinian issue since President Trump took office is best described as both driven by Israeli interests alone and morally shameful.

    “The Trump administration has been unusually effective in working to systematically dismantle the Palestinian state and make the Palestinians a non-people, something that many Israeli leaders have been urging for decades. This push to make the Palestinians go away has been achieved through a variety of actions: taking Jerusalem off the table; removing settlements from any discussion; changing U.S. policy as it relates to assistance provided to Palestinian refugees; supporting Congress in changing U.S. law related to families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned by Israel; and, acting to delegitimize and shut down the offices of both the Palestine Liberation Office and Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Trump Administration’s endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights suggests that a similar move by the Jewish state over the West Bank would also meet with White House approval.

    “America’s support of Israel is both morally wrong and, worse, contrary to actual U.S. interests. It behooves all of us who care about the well-being of the United States to speak up and support those brave individuals in the Democratic Party who are pushing for change. Those of us who actually believe that Palestinians are ‘endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights’ should be particularly active since our country’s endorsement of Israel’s inhumanity makes us Americans complicit in the war crimes. In this struggle, we are all Palestinians.”

  4. genesto on November 7, 2019, 1:21 pm

    I must say that, as a Bernie supporter, I am very disappointed in his not even responding to a call for introducing companion legislation in the Senate to H.R. 2407. This seems to indicate that, as a liberal Zionist who once lived on a kibbutz, Bernie still has reservations about actually holding Israel’s feet to the fire on any of its illegal actions against the Palestinians. However, Bernie has come a long ways on the issue in the last few years, so my hope is that, eventually, he will come around on this too. Maximum pressure by activists to compel him to do so may be necessary for this to happen, however.

    • echinococcus on November 7, 2019, 11:10 pm

      Genesto,

      Why “disappointed”? If you really expected anything else from a lifelong Zionist and warmonger, that would be naive. At any rate, that guy cannot ever hold “Israel’s feet to the fire”, if not for any other reason that his job is not to win the presidency but to sheepdog, as the term goes, the Democrats who are disgusted by their wing of the single party back to the fold of the trusting voters. As clearly demonstrated by not only all his actions but even his public statements in 2016. His job is to take your money and use it to get your enemy elected.

      As for having come a long way, indeed his target population’s sense of justice is obliging him to slide a little in the right direction in order to be able to keep his Dem voters ready to support the designated Dim candidate, come election day. And that is of course a good thing, as it has huge educative value for the general public.

      But re “eventually”, come on, he’s even a little older than me, fercryinoutloud. How long do you think he’s got to slowly “come around” for a few months each time, every 4 years?

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