Democratic appetite grows for conditions on weapons to Israel  



A growing number of Democrats are expressing interest in conditioning weapons to Israel, but the issue remains divisive in the party, and even supporters of the idea have varying views on the path toward placing restrictions on aid. 

Calls to pull back on military support for Israel grew after a deadly Israeli strike killed seven aid workers with the charity group World Central Kitchen (WCK) earlier this month.  

While the push for conditioning weapons remains mostly among progressives, some centrist Democrats expressed frustration after the WCK strike, which killed an American Canadian citizen. 

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) told The Hill there needs to be an investigation into the WCK strike and a plan for how Israel will do things differently in Gaza. 

“And if we don’t get an acceptable response, I think going forward it’s reasonable to have a discussion with them about [certain] conditions on what we provide them,“ he said. 

“The loss of civilian life is significant, unacceptable, and when innocent women and children get killed, you got to figure out a different way forward,” Kelly added. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, has urged the U.S. to only send defensive weapons to Israel, a call he emphasized after the WCK strike. 

“I still think that’s smart to avoid escalation,“ Kaine told The Hill of sending defensive weapons only. He added the first priority was getting Hamas to agree to a temporary cease-fire and hostage release deal. 

“The ball’s in their court now. The pace of humanitarian aid is picking up,” the senator said. 

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) also signaled an openness to conditioning weapons after the WCK strike. 

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she would block the sale of F-15s to Israel in the wake of the strike. In a statement to The Hill, Warren said she has “long called for conditioning aid to Israel.” 

Israel has conducted a preliminary investigation into the WCK strike and fired two officers for the incident, though a more detailed review is expected. Israeli forces said they mistakenly thought the WCK workers were Hamas fighters. 

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) is among those saying Israel has crossed a line. 

“My inclination at this point is to support defensive weapons only,” he told The Hill. “I have told [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] to his face that I thought the bombing campaign was doing more harm to Israel than to Hamas, and I think Israel absolutely has to do more in the way of facilitating humanitarian aid.” 

King also said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week that the U.S. has a “responsibility” as the supplier of weapons to ensure the protection of civilians. 

More than 50 Democrats in the House, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), signed a letter this month demanding an investigation into the WCK strike — and calling to withhold aid at least until it’s completed. 

“The letter is simple: Until you have an investigation, we should withhold,” Pelosi said in an MSNBC interview on Wednesday, citing the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. from providing weapons to foreign countries that violate human rights.

“If we give you assistance … you cannot interfere with our giving humanitarian assistance,” she added. 

Even Democrats who remain opposed to conditions on support for Israel are pushing for increased humanitarian aid and a minimization of civilian deaths. 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, told NewsNation last week that Democrats are in “different places” on the issue. 

But he emphasized that the party generally wants to support Israel while addressing the crisis in Gaza. 

“We’re not asking them to walk away from trying to meet their security needs,” he said. “We’re saying that the way they’re doing it isn’t necessary because they could be doing more to allow humanitarian assistance in and then once it’s in, make sure it gets to who needs it. That’s where the pressure is coming from right now.” 

More than 33,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza in the war, which has dragged on for more than six months and has created a humanitarian crisis in the coastal strip.  

Most Democrats are still siding with Israel, saying the nation must be allowed to ensure its security following Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and another roughly 240 hostages were taken.  

About 100 hostages are believed to be left alive in Gaza, though that figure is uncertain as Hamas negotiators say that don’t even have 40 hostages needed for another potential cease-fire deal. 

At the White House, President Biden has grown increasingly frustrated with the death toll and humanitarian situation. After the WCK strike, he had a tense call with Netanyahu, which was quickly followed by Israel’s opening of a new humanitarian corridor in northern Gaza. 

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, Biden replied to a question about conditioning aid to Israel by citing his efforts to push Netanyahu on getting more humanitarian aid into Gaza. 

“It’s not enough. But it needs to be more,“ he said of the humanitarian aid getting into Gaza. “We’ll see what he does in terms of meeting the commitments he made to me.”

Biden is facing pressure from his left flank on the Israel-Hamas war during a tight election year, and his frustration has slowly climbed amid the soaring death toll in Gaza, which has spurred protest votes against the president in Democratic primary contests. 

Now Biden has ramped up direct U.S. interventions, with American troops airdropping in aid and building a pier off the coast of Gaza to facilitate more deliveries.  

But the U.S. warned last week that famine has already arrived in Gaza, highlighting how dire the situation has become. 

If Democrats do agree on conditioning aid, it could be done in different ways, though it would be difficult to approve any measure considering Republicans control the House. And the Senate has already passed a national security supplemental that includes some $14 billion in additional support for Israel. 

The State Department, which manages arms transfers, must notify Congress 30 days before the sale or transfer of major defense equipment valued at $14 million or more, or of arms and defense articles worth $50 million or more. 

Congress can adopt a joint resolution of disapproval for a pending transfer to derail it, or they can at any time pass legislation blocking it. Congress has never adopted a joint resolution to block a transfer but has informally influenced transfer efforts before, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

Despite its growing rift with Israel, the Biden administration has continued to send more arms to the country, including the recent authorization of F-35 fighter jets and 2,000-pound bombs that have been used for widespread destruction in Gaza.

A State Department official told The Hill that it was not effective to place conditions on weapons, and that it could be extremely difficult to ensure compliance if they did, since it would likely require putting U.S. officials on the ground for tracking. 

And providing only defensive weapons would hinder the ability to rescue hostages, they added. 

“At a time when there remain American hostages in Hamas’s hands, I don’t think that any military could go and rescue hostages with an Iron Dome interceptor,” the official said. 

The official argued there are “always some corners of Congress that have questions and concerns,” especially during a conflict, but stressed the Biden administration is not talking about conditions or restrictions.

“We’re not negotiating restrictions or conditions because that is not the administration’s policy,” the official said. 

Ongoing negotiations between Israel, Hamas, Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. have impacted how lawmakers are viewing the conditioning of weapons to Israel, as many hope that a deal can soon be reached on a cease-fire and release of hostages. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Hill he wanted to see a “pause enabling more humanitarian aid” into Gaza when asked if he would support an effort to condition weapons. 

“I’m advocating that Israel continue in its right of self-defense,” he added. 

The mounting death toll in Gaza has increased anger in the Democratic party for months, and it reached a boiling point in March when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Netanyahu has been too willing to accept the toll in Gaza. Schumer also called for new elections in Israel. 

But despite growing agitation among Democrats, it’s unclear whether there’s enough pressure to take concrete actions toward an “ironclad” ally. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has pushed to tie Israeli aid to the protection of human rights to little avail, and he was joined by seven other senators in a March letter calling for conditions on offensive weapons. 

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “waiting for assurances” on what types of weapons are being sent to Israel in the future. 

“I want to make sure that I know the types of weapons and what the weapons would be utilized for,” he said on CNN last week. “I say it is enough of the indiscriminate bombing. I don’t want the kinds of weapons that Israel has [so far] utilized to have more death.  

“I want to make sure that humanitarian aid gets in. I don’t want people starving to death,” he continued. “And I want Hamas to release the hostages. It’s enough.”

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