It’s No Longer Taboo to Talk About Conditioning US Aid to Israel

  • Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been openly talking about conditioning US aid to Israel.
  • It won’t happen (for now), but it’s an astounding shift for an idea that’s long been taboo.
  • It comes as Democrats in particular raise concerns about Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas.

Over the last several weeks, members of Congress have openly discussed the idea of conditioning US aid to Israel.

The conversation has been driven by the climbing death toll and worsening conditions for Palestinian civilians in Gaza, far-right policies pursued by the Netanyahu government, and a sense that Israel has not been interested in pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years.

Conditions aren’t likely to happen, at least in the near term. The Senate version of the national security defense bill, released on Tuesday, does not place any restrictions on the more than $14 billion in aid allotted to Israel. Furthermore, Republicans — who control the House — are almost unanimously opposed to it, and not even a majority of Democrats are on board.

But a willingness to discuss the topic, ranging from the sober observations of more mainstream Democratic senators to the fiery pronouncements of progressive House members, represents the unexpected shattering of a longstanding taboo in Washington.

“It is quite astonishing how much of a sea change there has been on this issue,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a longtime supporter of conditioning aid to Israel.

Even Democrats who are opposed to the idea in principle are acknowledging that it’s a fair conversation to have — and that it could have positive consequences.

“If the conversation does further empower the administration to pursue our collective goals as Israel wages this war against Hamas, that could be a good thing,” said Democratic Rep. Greg Landsman of Ohio, one of more than two dozen Jewish House members.

$158 billion to date — and another $14 billion teed up

Israel has received more US foreign aid than any other country, totaling $158 billion over the last several decades.

$34.3 billion of that has come in the form of economic aid, but these days, almost all US aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance.

Since fiscal year 2019, the US has provided $3.8 billion to Israel every year, most of which takes the form of grants allowing Israel to purchase US military equipment.

In the wake of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack, Congress is now considering legislation that would provide more than $14 billion in additional aid to Israel.

What does it mean to ‘condition’ aid?

It depends who you ask, but generally speaking, “conditioning” foreign aid means restricting the flow of that aid until certain demands are met.

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a leading progressive, told Business Insider that he prefers the term “restriction” because there are aspects of US aid to Israel that he supports — such as the country’s famed “Iron Dome” missile defense system — and others that he does not.

“I’ve always been a supporter of Iron Dome. The whole idea is, if a missile comes in, it gets taken out, and that’s a win-win,” said Pocan. “The problem is, sometimes Israel responds with 100 times the missiles back into Gaza.”

Some proponents of conditioning US aid to Israel say that it’s simply a matter of following existing US laws, which they argue are not being enforced. For example, the Leahy law prohibits the US from financing foreign militaries that commit “gross violations of human rights.”

Ocasio-Cortez says it's "quite astonishing how much of a sea change there has been on this issue."

Ocasio-Cortez says it’s “quite astonishing how much of a sea change there has been on this issue.”

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Sometimes, these laws tend to be enforced in a much more relaxed way, or not at all,” said Matt Duss, Executive Vice President of the Center for International Policy and a former foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I think what you’re seeing now is a recognition that we really need to enforce the law.”

But others believe that Congress should go further, writing new conditions or restrictions into law.

“If there was any meaningful enforcement of Leahy laws when it came to protection of Palestinian human rights, this would be a different conversation, and we could allow those existing statutes to stand,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “But clearly, they have failed.”

Sanders, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, spoke more broadly of the need to use the aid as “leverage,” saying that the “blank check approach must end.”

He went on to list several possible conditions to attach to US aid to Israel, including an end to indiscriminate bombing, a guarantee of no long-term Israeli occupation of Gaza, and a commitment to peace talks for a two-state solution.

‘The path of least resistance’

For decades, there’s been a strong bipartisan consensus on supporting Israel — and keeping any criticism to a minimum — thanks in large part to a well-funded, well-organized effort on the part of pro-Israel Americans.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which pushes a staunchly pro-Israel line, has long held a dominant position in American politics. According to a new book, Ocasio-Cortez was offered $100,000 in campaign contributions to “start the conversation” on Israel shortly after her primary victory in 2018.

Meanwhile, those who are critical of Israel have not enjoyed the same level of organization or funding.

“The path of least resistance for an awful lot of members of Congress is to be reflexive,” Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut said on a recent Zoom call, saying he receives several visits from AIPAC each year but “never once” been visited by a pro-Palestinian group.

And aside from the power of organized groups in Washington, it’s also simply the case that most Americans have long been able to relate to Israelis more than Palestinians.

“[Americans] understand the Israeli side of the story in much clearer historical and cultural terms than they understand the Palestinian side of the story,” said Duss.

‘I think it’s gaining momentum’

The recent mainstreaming of the idea of conditioning aid has been driven by several factors.

“I think it’s the images” coming out of Gaza, said Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While Cardin says he believes conditions amount to a “knee-jerk reaction” that “could be counterproductive,” he also stressed that “we’re all concerned about the loss of innocent life.”

“That’s part of what’s changing — people have greater access to information, and Palestinians themselves have greater access to ways of sharing their own story,” said Duss. “A lot of progressives, especially younger progressives, have come to see the Palestinian issue as one of social and racial racial justice.”

But it’s not the images alone — it’s also due to the efforts of groups like J Street, a more liberal pro-Israel organization that questioned Democratic presidential candidates in 2019 about conditioning aid.

“We were asking a lot of questions about aid, and what people think about it, whether it should be like a blank check, or whether we should be having more restrictions and guardrails on how it can be used,” said Logan Bayroff, VP of Communications at J Street.

“I think it’s gaining momentum,” said Sanders, who’s led the charge on this issue for years. “We don’t want to be complicit in the killing of many, many thousands of civilians, including 70% of them who are women and children.”

Sanders voted against considering the Israel-Ukraine aid bill on Wednesday, citing the lack of conditions. He has also indicated that he may seek to force a floor vote on the matter.

“Look, you’re asking me for specifics,” Sanders told Business Insider last week. “All that I can tell you is that we are working on that issue right now.”

And though it’s mostly Democrats who are having this conversation, it’s not exclusively so.

“I think all foreign aid should have conditions,” said Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, pointing to the fact that the US has sent billions of dollars in aid to Egypt despite the country’s domestic repression. “So I’ll be open to hearing what’s offered.”

‘Symbolism is important when you’re dealing with foreign policy’

In the near term, Congress remains as staunchly pro-Israel as ever.

The House continues to overwhelmingly pass resolutions equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, affirming support for Israel and its right to exist, and declaring that Israel is “not a racist or apartheid state.” Not to mention the censure of Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

And for every Democrat who says they’re open to conditions, there are two-to-three more who will tell you they aren’t interested.

“Zero. Zero conditions,” said Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. “I stand with Israel, and they shouldn’t have any conditions.”

“It seems like a really easy thing to say ‘let’s condition aid to Israel,’ but for what purpose? With what intended result?” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.

“Broadly speaking, I am against conditioning aid to Israel. We have never done that,” said Rep. Dan Goldman of New York. “I think that the pathway towards having some of these conversations, which are important conversations, should be done on a diplomatic level, not in connection to the aid.”

But whereas such talk might be dismissed as extreme even just a few years ago, today it’s a natural part of the conversation.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, a staunch pro-Israel Democrat who once said conditions were “a nonstarter,” sounded a softer note when asked about the conditions conversation by Business Insider at a press conference last week.

“We’ve got to make sure Israel and our allies across the world are able to provide for their self-defense,” said Jeffries, adding that the US should “continue to urge anyone throughout the world — but particularly those that we support — to prosecute the conflicts that they are engaged in, in a manner consistent with the international rules of war.”

And proponents view the mere existence of the conversation as a positive shift that may even have concrete implications.

“Symbolism is important when you’re dealing with foreign policy and diplomacy,” said Bayroff. “It’s about what kind of message we are sending to the Netanyahu government about their conduct, and what the United States thinks is acceptable.”

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