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Democrats in Senate and House discuss conditioning military aid to Israel

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hosted a luncheon for Senate Democrats on the war between Israel and Hamas on Wednesday, four people familiar with the gathering said. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, spoke with lawmakers on these issues and confirmed that the meeting took place. Three other people said Telhami was a guest alongside The New York Times’ Tom Friedman and former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, none of whom immediately responded to requests for comment.

“The conditions of military aid were raised” by some senators, said one of those present.

The talks come as fighting in Gaza intensifies and the civilian death toll rises – around 11,000 dead, according to Hamas-run Gaza health authorities – raising questions among Israel’s traditional allies. Israel on red lines for aid.

Democrats’ unequivocal support for the Israeli military has eroded in recent weeks, going beyond the skepticism progressives have already expressed toward the administration’s unyielding support for Israel. If more moderate Democrats join calls to condition aid to Israel, it could complicate President Joe Biden’s policy of strongly supporting the country in its retaliation against Hamas.

Last week, aid organizations said their offices were bombed and staff killed following the clashes. Medical facilities are also under siege and facing a lack of vital medical supplies.

Earlier this month, calling for more humanitarian aid to Gaza, 13 Democratic senators said in a joint statement: “We are closely following the war in Gaza and believe much more must be done to protect lives civilian… Failure to protect non-combatant civilians risks a dramatic escalation of conflict in the region and imposes serious damage on the prospects for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

If the hallway conversations turn to legislative action, which would put immense pressure on the White House, it could force Biden to relax his embrace of Israel as it retaliates against Hamas following the October 7 attack that killed 1,200 people. This would please progressives in Congress who want the United States to demand a cease-fire.

The Pentagon declined to comment. The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Earlier this month, Vice President Kamala Harris said “we are not going to create any conditions on our support for Israel’s defense.”

Democrats have not decided how, or even whether, to push for conditions on military aid to Israel. But both lawmakers said current discussions revolve around using existing authorities, such as invoking the Leahy Act, which prohibits sending funds to countries where there is credible information about rights abuses. of man.

Israel receives about $3.8 billion a year from the United States for its military and missile defense systems. The Republican-led House passed a $14.3 billion aid bill earlier this month that Biden threatened to veto because it did not include funding for the Ukraine, among other priorities.

A former senior defense official, who also requested anonymity to detail the sensitive discussions, said it was “unlikely” that the administration would impose conditions on its aid to Israel.

“It is very difficult to condition military aid, because how can we guarantee it and how can we build it? Especially in this case, we are not able to truly educate a friend and an ally,” the former official said. “Suggest to them, yes. Urge them, yes, but don’t necessarily condition our help. I think that would be a bridge too far.

But the Biden administration has faced growing pressure over the past week to respond to Israel’s actions — including its operation at Gaza’s largest hospital, Shifa — as doctors say their patients, including newborns risk dying.

Some of this pressure comes from U.S. allies. Alicia Kearns, a British Conservative MP and chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said “it is absolutely vital that there are restrictions” on future military aid to Israel, pointing to the high rate of civilian casualties when Israel strikes Hamas target. .

Israel defended its hospital operation, saying Hamas had built tunnels and a control center underneath. U.S. officials have said Washington has its own intelligence services that support Israel’s claims. The operation appears to be continuing at the hospital, although communications inside Gaza are limited.

The United States is in ongoing talks with the Israeli government about the possibility of establishing safe zones in southern Gaza that would allow humanitarian organizations to operate more freely and away from the crossfire. Talks are also underway between Israel and Hamas over a ceasefire, although those discussions appear to have stalled in recent days.

Lara Seligman and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

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