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Bernie Sanders called on Congress to require Israel to change its policies as a condition to receiving US military aid – a statement that was met with fierce opposition by vocal Democratic supporters of the Jewish state, underscoring a deepening rift on the left over the Biden administration’s response to the war.
In a statement on Saturday, Sanders, a leading progressive voice, proposed leveraging US security assistance as a way of forcing Israel to reconsider its military strategy amid its bombardment and blockade of Gaza that has led to spiraling death, dislocation and destruction across the territory.
“While Israel has the right to go after Hamas, [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s rightwing extremist government does not have the right to wage almost total warfare against the Palestinian people,” Sanders said in the statement. “That is morally unacceptable and in violation of international law.”
Israel’s response to the murderous 7 October attack by Hamas – which left 1,200 people dead and roughly 240 taken hostage, the vast majority of whom were civilians, according to Israeli officials – has caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. More than 13,000 Palestinians – most of them women and children – have been killed, according to Palestinian health authorities.
Sanders issued his call as Democrats faced mounting pressure from the party’s voters to support a ceasefire in the weeks-long war. Sanders himself has faced criticism from his progressive supporters over his reluctance to endorse their push for a ceasefire.
Joe Biden, who has emphatically backed Israel, has seen his support among Democrats drop dramatically, as majorities of Americans disapprove of his handling of the Israel-Hamas war and foreign policy more broadly.
An NBC News poll released over the weekend found that a majority of Democrats – 51% – believe Israel’s military response in Gaza has gone “too far”, versus 27% who say its actions are “justified”. The discontent was especially pronounced among younger voters: nearly seven in 10 voters between the ages of 18 and 34 disapproved of the US president’s handling of the war.
It comes amid reports that a number of House and Senate Democrats have engaged in discussions about how to impose conditions on future military aid. Politico reported that the conversations among progressives were “preliminary” but that the White House was aware that “administration allies could openly push for conditions in the near future”.
Sanders’ demands include a postwar commitment by Israel to pursue “broad peace talks for a two-state solution” as well as to ensure displaced Gazans are able to return to their homes and that Israel will not reoccupy or continue its blockade of the enclave.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat of New York, called Sanders’ proposal a “responsible course of action”.
“The United States has a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that public resources do not facilitate gross violations of human rights and international law,” she wrote on Twitter/X.
Ocasio-Cortez is part of a growing number of House Democrats who have publicly called on Biden to support a ceasefire. What began as a call by 12 progressive House Democrats has now expanded to include more than three dozen members, including several Jewish Democrats.
The idea of conditioning aid was also raised in a New York Times op-ed by Josh Paul, who recently resigned from his position as the former director in the state department’s political-military affairs bureau to protest against the US decision to continue sending weapons into the conflict in Gaza.
“If the United States is to continue to employ military and security assistance as a tool of its engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and there are good arguments why it should not), it must change its approach significantly,” he wrote on Friday. “One way to do this would be simply by applying the laws and policies that it applies to every other country in the world: There is no point in having leverage that could pressure Israel to cease actions that undermine peace if we refuse to even consider using it.”
But any effort from Democrats to put restrictions on Israel has been met by furious backlash.
“Conditioning aid to Israel will only have one outcome: it would help Hamas in their goal of completely annihilating Israel and the Jewish people,” said congressman Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat. “It would weaken America’s national security and our fight against terror.”
Congressman Jared Moskowitz, a Florida Democrat, warned that if Sanders attached “political requirements” to aid for Israel, he would work to “remove those conditions or condition [a]id to Gaza that requires the removal of Hamas”.
“Let’s not play this game,” Moskowitz wrote on X. “Send the aid to both.”
Meanwhile, several Democrats compared Sanders’ proposal to a decision by the House speaker, Mike Johnson, to tie the $14.3bn aid package to Israel to $14.3bn in spending cuts to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
“I didn’t agree with conditioning aid to Israel when Republicans did it and I don’t agree if Democrats are trying to do it,” Congressman Jake Auchincloss, a Massachusetts Democrat, wrote.
Asked about the growing calls among progressives, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said he would oppose applying such “criteria” on assistance to one of the US’s closest allies.
“I don’t know how the United States Congress, which has yet to pass a budget, can impose conditions for combat on an ally that is trying to defend itself as it has a right and responsibility to do under some of the most difficult conditions of warfare in recent history,” he said in a Sunday appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I would be very loth to impose conditions that would, in effect, straitjacket or handcuff the IDF in this very, very excruciatingly difficult challenge.”
Amid international outcry over the Gazan civilian death toll under Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion, the Biden administration is increasingly raising concerns about the scale of the violence caused by Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, as well as its postwar plans for the territory. It is also frustrated by the Israeli settler violence in the occupied West Bank, which has escalated since the 7 October attack.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Biden wrote on Saturday that the US was prepared to impose sanctions, including visa bans, against Israeli settlers who attack Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.
“I have been emphatic with Israel’s leaders that extremist violence against Palestinians in the West Bank must stop and that those committing the violence must be held accountable,” he wrote.
Asked about the growing push to condition aid during an interview on Meet the Press, Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, said: “No assistance that the United States provides to any country is unconditional.”
He repeated that the US was committed to supporting Israel as it defends itself in response to the attacks of 7 October, but that Israel had an “obligation” to conduct “this conflict in a way that distinguishes civilians from noncombatants in a way that is proportional”.
Finer declined to say whether the White House was confident that Israel was following international law after Israeli forces raided Gaza’s largest hospital last week.