Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that it is “totally unnecessary” for Israel to abide by U.S. standards regarding conditions for military aid ― offering a rare high-level acknowledgment that the United States does not apply the law to Israel as it does to other countries.
Asked about conversations among Democratic senators about putting additional conditions on aid to Israel amid its devastating offensive in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, the Kentucky Republican told reporters: “I think it’s ridiculous.”
“Our relationship with Israel is the closest national security relationship we have with any country in the world, and to condition, in effect, our assistance to Israel to their meeting our standards it seems to me is totally unnecessary,” McConnell said. “This is a democracy, a great ally of ours, and I do not think we need to condition the support that hopefully we will give to Israel very soon.”
Lawmakers are considering a multibillion-dollar package of additional American assistance for Israel as the nation wages a campaign targeting the Palestinian militant group Hamas in retaliation for a Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 Israelis. Many humanitarian groups and foreign policy experts are alarmed by Israel’s conduct as it uses U.S. weaponry and funding: The United States already provides more than $3 billion in annual military aid to the nation. The recent campaign in Gaza has killed close to 15,000 Palestinians, including more than 5,000 children, according to authorities there, and Amnesty International last week published an investigation accusing Israel of committing war crimes by indiscriminately targeting civilians.
McConnell’s comments are striking because they undercut decades of claims from U.S. officials, including from the Biden administration amid the current fighting, that the U.S. expects Israel to respect U.S. and international standards in its military operations. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid since World War II.
McConnell wields significant influence in discussions about U.S. military aid internationally because he helps craft the legislation permitting that spending, shepherds Republican Senate votes to approve it and determines which GOP senators receive powerful positions on committees overseeing global affairs.
Under U.S. law, officials must track how countries that receive American weapons use them and must stop providing support to military units that are found to have committed serious human rights violations. The Biden administration has also established new policies governing arms transfers that require the U.S. to stop sending weapons if it determines that it is “more likely than not” the material will be used to commit rights abuses, to investigate reports that partner countries are using weapons to hurt civilians and to reduce the risk of civilian harm caused by alliances like the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Leaders in Washington usually offer “some talking point that maintains the integrity of U.S. laws,” said Sarah Yager, a former Pentagon and State Department official who is now the Washington director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “McConnell is just throwing them out the window.”
“I am startled that a member of the U.S. Senate, which has oversight responsibilities on U.S. arms transfers, would say that Israel does not need to abide by U.S. standards,” Yager told HuffPost.
“That’s negligent,” she said. “U.S. laws are meant to mirror international laws, so the whole point of something like the Leahy law [prohibiting aid to foreign military units who commit abuses] is to ensure that partners that are violating international law do not receive support ― so McConnell is not only saying that U.S. laws don’t matter, he is saying that Israel doesn’t need to abide by international law.”
Many current and former U.S. officials say the government’s commitment to close ties with Israel and the political sensitivity of appearing to question the relationship mean Israel is treated in exceptional ways that bypass standards designed to protect human rights and avoid breaking international humanitarian law or the laws of war.
In a November brief for the Institute for Middle East Understanding, recently departed State Department official Josh Paul wrote that Israel is given special treatment in how the Leahy statute is implemented. When the State Department hears allegations that Israeli forces receiving U.S. assistance may have committed major rights violations, it brings those reports to a working group of several State Department offices.
To confirm that a violation has occurred, which would trigger a pause in U.S. support for the relevant Israel unit, every office involved in the group must agree, and failure to reach consensus means aid keeps flowing. It’s a reversal of other cases, in which the objection of a single relevant official can halt the aid.
“To-date, the [group] has not come to consensus on any allegation,” wrote Paul, who worked on U.S. arms deals for more than a decade, of his experience with the State Department group. HuffPost was the first media outlet to report the news of Paul’s Oct. 18 resignation.
To temper the bloodshed as Israel continues its operation, which is expected to take up to two more months, many activists and some lawmakers are pushing for the U.S. to more stringently apply some of the standards already on the books and institute new conditions.
Congress is extremely unlikely to pass new Israel-specific conditions into law, particularly with Republicans who are largely hostile to Palestinian concerns controlling the House of Representatives.
Still, proponents of a shift in the U.S. approach, which Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently described as a “blank check,” believe their public advocacy can have a powerful effect by pressuring the Biden administration and Israel.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its handling of aid to Israel.