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.