There’s a lot of talk around Washington these days about what to do with President Joe Biden’s request for $14 billion in emergency aid for Israel. The intensifying debate points to deepening political divisions over this country’s strong support for Israel during the current crisis – and to a potentially huge political problem for President Biden on the verge of an election year.
House Republicans want to hold the emergency aid hostage to their demands to cut funding for the IRS to audit tax cheats and big political donors. Senate Republicans want it linked to security measures on the southern border, where if you believe Donald Trump, “The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful USA.”
Progressives want to tie some strings to the aid package while demanding a ceasefire; a few on the fringes want to stop the aid entirely. The $14 billion is on top of the annual $3.8 billion.
The White House wants to lump it together with aid to Ukraine and Taiwan.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who once called himself Netanyahu’s best friend in Washington (I haven’t heard him say that lately), plans to bring up the administration’s request, sans restrictions, this week, but it is likely to fail due to GOP insistence on border security provisions, Politico reports.
Threats to condition aid are significant, even though they're unlikely to be realized
Conditioning emergency aid in a time of war is unlikely to pass either the House or Senate, and it shouldn’t. But it would be wrong for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to interpret that as an endorsement. His stock is down and failing.
That’s not new, but it was accelerated by the feeling, right or wrong, that Israel is indifferent to the high casualty toll among Gaza’s civilians and rising settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.
Schumer is keenly aware that any cuts or restrictions would inflame the wave of antisemitism across this country and bolster Israel’s enemies by telling them the support of its most important ally is softening. But he also knows that his own troops are not falling in line.
Sen. Dick Durbin, number two in the Democratic leadership, and at least three Jewish senators, Richard Blumenthal, Brian Schatz, and Bernie Sanders, are among a handful talking about imposing restrictions. Their criticism signals growing problems on the Left that are spreading to the Democrats’ mainstream.
It’s not just the Democrats. Ohio Republican Mike Turner, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said on NBC’s Meet the Press that calls for “conditional aid” to Israel in response to the high civilian casualty rate “accurately reflect US policy,” The Hill reported.
“I see zero chance of that happening, unless Israel takes off in a completely ‘in your face Washington’ direction when it comes to their ground campaign in southern Gaza,” said veteran US Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller.
“This would reflect a major breach in US-Israeli relations – delaying assistance to an ally in the middle of a war against Hamas.”
This assessment is shared by several longtime pro-Israel lobbyists.
“I see very little chance of anything getting through the House and Senate,” said one. Don’t look for any conditions carrying the force of law, but there is likely to be language in the bill expressing rising concerns in Congress about the use of the emergency aid.
The president opposes Congress imposing conditions, arguing it will only strengthen Hamas, giving it not only bragging rights that October 7 was a great victory, but also destroy hopes for Palestinian statehood, which would be impossible so long as the terrorist organization survives.
Advocates of conditioning aid claim it will strengthen Biden’s hand in dealing with Netanyahu, but the president has more effective tools at his disposal. He has chosen to show full support in public – at the apparent expense of political support for his reelection next year – while pressing his concerns in private.
But that doesn’t seem to be working well, despite personally flying to Israel to show American support to the Israeli people, plus many phone conversations with Netanyahu and dispatching his top people – secretaries of state and defense, vice president, national security advisor, the CIA director, and others – to deliver his message.
Netanyahu is trying America's patience
Netanyahu either isn’t listening or feels safe in snubbing the most pro-Israel president ever. Biden, who is known to distrust Netanyahu, may be losing patience.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally felt he had to go public when he apparently felt Netanyahu wasn’t listening.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan indicated that the administration may be open to some restrictions on weapons and technology being supplied to Israel in response to growing calls from Democrats.
Speaking in Dubai, Vice President Kamala Harris said: “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed,” and that is driving civilians into the “arms of the enemy.” She warned against conflating Hamas with the Palestinian people, and cautioned, “As Israel defends itself, it matters how.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Israel has a “moral responsibility” to protect civilians.
It is one thing to have differences of opinion with your closest ally and another to poke him in the eye publicly. While Biden wants to see a resuscitated peace process leading to a refurbished Palestinian Authority and two-state solution, Netanyahu bluntly dismisses it with “never on my watch.”
Netanyahu's seeming indifference to everything but his own political future
Netanyahu’s seeming indifference to the shocking civilian death toll in Gaza threatens to undermine US political support at a critical moment for Israel, as well as deepen divisions in the American Jewish community, already damaged by his anti-democratic campaign to overthrow the nation’s independent judiciary.
But the prime minister is more afraid that his political partners will abandon him than would his strategic partner, the United States. Not surprising for someone who has been widely criticized for putting his personal concerns above the national interest.
Biden’s support for Israel comes at a significant cost for the president. Growing numbers in his party, notably younger and more progressive voters, as well as Arab-American, Muslim, and black and brown Democrats feel that he is too indulgent of Israel and not showing enough concern about the humanitarian crisis. Others, to his right, accuse him of tying Israel’s hands as it goes full force against those responsible for the October 7 pogrom.
The nascent debate over the emergency aid package is just the tip of what could be a very big political iceberg.
The lead in The Washington Post the other day came as a shock to many. “Aid for Israel is no longer a slam dunk,” it declared. “A growing number of Democrats are becoming increasingly skeptical of the need for it.”
Is Bibi listening? Or reading? Does he care?
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.