Should the US put conditions on Israel aid?

Democrats are divided on the issue

A coin with strings attached
"Blind U.S. security guarantees have not provided a path to peace"
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Should the U.S. condition aid to Israel on avoiding civilian casualties in Gaza? For a brief moment it appeared that could happen: President Joe Biden last week called the idea a "worthwhile thought." But the thought is no longer being entertained: Politico reported that White House officials say "Biden won't restrict support for Israel any time soon." It's a stance that "could put the president on a collision course" with his fellow Democrats.

"Democrats in Congress are clashing with each other" over the issue, The New York Times reported, "a striking departure" from the longstanding American practice of approving Israel aid "with few strings attached." Israel has been "the United States' largest cumulative recipient of foreign aid since its founding in 1948." Now, though, there is some hesitation. "My big issue is not with the Israel aid," said Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) "It's with the Israel bombing that's having such a devastating impact on the civilians."

Indeed, Axios reported, the number of civilians killed by Israel's bombardment is growing faster than in "other conflict zones in the 21st century." Israel says 1,200 of its citizens were killed during the initial Hamas attack on Oct. 7. In the two months since, nearly 15,000 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 6,000 Palestinian children. "Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children," said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. What can — or should — the U.S. do about it?

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What the commentators said

"Blind U.S. security guarantees have not provided a path to peace," Josh Paul, a former State Department official, argued in The New York Times. Instead, it has given Israeli leaders they can pursue bad policies — like allowing illegal settlements in the West Bank — "without any real consequences." Now that aid is killing civilians in Gaza. U.S. law prohibits security assistance to any government "credibly accused" of human rights violations, but Israel has largely escaped that scrutiny. The United States "must change its approach significantly."

It's complicated, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a Times op-ed. Hamas' goal is "the destruction of the state of Israel." But Israel has done little in recent years "to give hope for a peaceful settlement" of its disputes with the Palestinians. The only way those conditions will change is if the United States uses its leverage to pressure Israeli leaders. "And we all know what that leverage is." While the United States is a friend of Israel, "there are conditions to that friendship."

Putting human rights conditions on Israeli aid is "unnecessary — but not harmless," The Wall Street Journal opined. While Israel's critics have been out in force, "Israel's counteroffensive has been the opposite of indiscriminate." It's being forced to fight in a "densely populated urban area" but if it was dropping bombs without concern for civilian casualties "the death toll would be many times higher than even Hamas claims." The purpose of putting conditions on aid would be to "warn Israel that it will risk losing U.S. support if it tries to complete its mission of toppling Hamas."

What next?

The issue is splitting Democrats. That's not the case on the Republican side, HuffPost reported.  "Our relationship with Israel is the closest national security relationship we have with any country in the world," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), "and to condition, in effect, our assistance to Israel to their meeting our standards it seems to me is totally unnecessary." The intra-Democratic debate about imposing standards on that aid, he said, is "ridiculous."

In the meantime, the Biden administration is reportedly working behind the scenes to reduce civilian casualties in the war. CNN reported the White House is pressing Israel to move civilians out of the way if it attacks southern Gaza when the current pause in fighting ends. American leaders are telling Israelis not to "resume the kinds of air strikes from earlier in the war that led to massive casualties and widespread destruction." Israeli forces must be "more cautious, more careful, more deliberate, and more precise in their targeting," said one official. Whether Israel takes that advice remains to be seen. 

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