WASHINGTON ― Democrats in the Senate aren’t thrilled with progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) proposal to reshape the U.S. relationship with Israel and the Palestinians by linking American aid to Israel’s behavior toward its neighbors.
During a Jewish American group’s conference on Monday, Sanders, who is vying to be the first Jewish president, delivered impassioned remarks about his sympathy for Palestinians and issued a proposal that would have once been considered political suicide: making U.S. aid contingent on Israel’s conduct in the region. His proposal, a significant departure from decades-old U.S. policy, was swiftly criticized by Republicans and Democrats, including some of his fellow 2020 presidential candidates.
″$3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche,” Sanders said at the annual confab for J Street, which advocates for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, referring to the amount of military aid Washington provides Israel each year.
“If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza. ... I think it is fair to say that some of that $3.8 billion should go right now into humanitarian aid,” the Vermont senator added.
The proposal is among a number of Sanders’ ideas to fundamentally reshape the U.S. relationship with Israel, including taking a tougher line against the traditionally dominant pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and demanding that Israel halt settlement construction.
But his ideas would present a substantive break with Democratic Party policy toward Israel. At the end of former President Barack Obama’s time in office, for example, Democrats regularly boasted about the massive new annual aid package they had secured for Israel.
Sanders’ push to alter U.S. aid to Israel would also face hurdles in Congress, where there is wide bipartisan support for current policy, including from top Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“I think that has no support here on Capitol Hill,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, said of Sanders’ remarks. “The aid that goes to Israel is designated for particular purposes, and the issue concerning the Palestinians is a separate matter that this Congress is not going to take unilateral action that could affect those negotiations.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), in line to chair the Foreign Relations Committee if Democrats recapture the upper chamber in next year’s election, also disagreed with the idea.
“I think that people have to understand the challenges that Israel faces from Gaza, and so if we didn’t have the malign activities that emanate from Gaza, we would be in a much better place,” Menendez said, referring to the territory blockaded by Israel and controlled by the militant group Hamas.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another Foreign Relations Committee member, said he would oppose “anything that would suggest conditioning aid to Israel and Israel not being able to defend itself and not being able to be secure.”
The debate over military aid to Israel has emerged as a flashpoint in the crowded race for the 2020 Democratic nomination. At Monday’s J Street conference, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, didn’t rule out the idea entirely. But other candidates, like former Vice President Joe Biden, took a more dismissive tone.
“The idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel on the condition that they change a specific policy I find to be absolutely outrageous,” Biden told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday.