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A funding package for Israel remains stalled between the House and Senate. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Democrats’ Divides Are on Full Display Over Israel Aid

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is escalating his criticisms of Israel’s prime minister’s handling of the war in Gaza.

As President Joe Biden escalates his criticisms of Israel’s strategy in Gaza, Democrats in Congress are far from a consensus on how the United States should handle the worsening situation in the Middle East.

Biden said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the war in Gaza was a “mistake” in a recent interview with Univision, days after the Biden administration opened the door to conditioning aid to Israel. The comments come as a funding package for Israel remains stalled between the House and Senate.

Veteran Democratic leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are whipping votes in favor of a discharge petition that would force a vote on the aid bill for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan the Senate passed in February, Axios reported Friday. However, several House progressives remain unlikely to join the effort, citing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Biden’s comments have far from unified Democrats on the issue.

Several Democrats told NOTUS that the president has not done nearly enough to address the humanitarian situation.

“You often see some progress in the wake of these conversations that then disappears. Is the Rafah operation happening or not? Because if it’s still happening and all we’re getting is a postponement, then we’re not really saving lives,” Sen. Chris Murphy said.

He added, “I’m glad to see that there’s some increase in humanitarian access to Gaza, but you can’t save people’s lives unless the bombing stops. It needs to be a suspension of military activity in order to put 100% effort into staving off famine. That’s where I am. That’s not yet where the Biden administration is.”

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Sen. Chris Van Hollen also voiced concerns that Biden’s administration has not been clear enough in its push for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza. Van Hollen pointed to the United Nations’ cease-fire resolution as an example of the administration’s apparent lack of effort to “back up” their statements around a cease-fire in general. “The national security spokesman went out right away and said this is nonbinding,” Van Hollen said. “I mean, [John] Kirby went out and said — I don’t know why, Netanyahu is upset about this — it’s not binding.”

“That was an important decision by the administration to allow that to pass, and we should back it up,” Van Hollen said.

These Democrats are up against a staunchly pro-Israel contingent in the caucus, like Sen. John Fetterman and House Reps. Ritchie Torres and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

“It has no bearing on my decision on the aid package,” Torres said of Biden opening the door to conditioning U.S. funds to Israel. “I’ve said repeatedly, every conceivable effort should be made to minimize Palestinian casualties and to maximize humanitarian aid to Palestinians and distress, but at the same time, I remain convinced that Hamas must be removed from power.”

Israel’s attack on World Central Kitchen aid workers prompted some, like Sen. Chris Coons, to change their views on Israel’s war effort. “I think the World Central Kitchen was, in some ways, the final straw,” Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont told NOTUS.

But several lawmakers said they were fine with their previous positions.

“Does the call make me think differently [about Israel aid]? No,” Sen. Maria Cantwell told NOTUS of Biden’s conversation with Netanyahu. “I support the supplemental, as is.”

These divides demonstrate how fraught foreign aid negotiations are with this Congress. Johnson has vowed to bring forward a vote on Israel and Ukraine aid by next week — though the Republican conference, too, is in complete disarray over Ukraine funding.

Biden’s call does seem to have taken effect, though. Reports out of Israel say nearly 1,000 trucks’ worth of aid have crossed the border into Gaza in the days since the call between the two leaders. While those actions haven’t yet swayed Congress or the administration, they do seem to be appreciated.

“It seems like the Israeli government is sensitive to the will of the president of the United States, as it should be,” Torres told NOTUS. “The security of Israel depends heavily on the U.S.-Israel relationship, which depends heavily on the president.”

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.