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Chris Coons
Sen. Chris Coons previously said he was open to conditioning aid to Israel. Alex Brandon/AP

Senate Democrats Point to the White House to Handle Accountability on Israel Aid

Despite vocalizing concerns about Israel’s conduct in Gaza, lawmakers see more urgency in passing the foreign aid package than debating conditions to aid.

Senate Democrats, imminently facing a vote to send tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, shrugged off any discussion of adding conditions to those funds. That’s the White House’s job, lawmakers told NOTUS.

Several Democratic senators who have been openly critical of Israel’s conduct in its war in Gaza say the risk of not passing the overarching foreign aid bill is too high for them to add conditions or amendments to the current package.

“I’m not interested in sending this bill back to the House of Representatives,” Sen. Chris Murphy said. “There’s gonna be a lot of amendments on their merits that I would consider, but the priority is getting this bill done.”

Murphy cited the president’s February national security memorandum, which said it would “prevent arms transfers that risk facilitating or otherwise contributing to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.”

Sen. Chris Coons agreed. “The more I have looked into the mechanics of what would it actually mean to try and condition aid in response to a specific event at a specific time, it was always going to require cooperation and partnership from the executive,” he said.

After Israel struck and killed aid workers with the World Central Kitchen, Coons said in an interview with CNN he’d be open to placing conditions on aid to Israel if there was “a full-scale ground campaign into Rafah without taking into account their obligation under international law to protect civilians and to facilitate the distribution of aid.”

The Senate’s vote on foreign aid comes as reports signal that a large-scale ground assault on Rafah is becoming more likely. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told members of the British government that he plans to go ahead with a ground invasion of Rafah, according to reporting from The Guardian. The Israel Defense Forces has conducted multiple air strikes into Rafah over the past week, reportedly causing civilian deaths in a preparatory action for a possible ground force.

“We’re in a period where there is intense conversation about what might they do or might not do, and what would the consequences be,” Coons said of the outlook on the ground.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal also put the onus of keeping Israel accountable to humanitarian standards on President Joe Biden.

“The executive branch has responsibility for conducting international relations in the Constitution,” Blumenthal said. “It is the president who has responsibility for diplomacy, not the Congress.”

While some saw Israel’s strike against the aid workers as a “final straw,” as Sen. Peter Welch said, Democrats at large have since shown no signs of pushing for restrictions on the military aid to Israel.

Sen. Bernie Sanders offered two amendments Tuesday to “cut billions in offensive military funding to Israel” and restore funding to the organization UNRWA, the United Nations’ agency that handles humanitarian aid for Palestinians. Both failed.

“We’re not gonna have an opportunity to amend it and send it back over,” Sen. Mark Kelly said of the bill. “We need to pass this. Israel is an ally, Taiwan is an ally. We need to be prepared for whatever China’s gonna do. Ukraine clearly needs our support with missiles, ammunition, armored vehicles, so we have to get this done.”

“It’s not a tough situation for me,” Kelly said of a vote that would cede accountability measures to the executive branch. “I mean, I’ve expressed my concerns to the Israeli government, where at times they’ve been, it’s fair to say, even reckless, irresponsible in how they’ve conducted this, and they need to make changes. They need to consider the innocent Palestinian people here.”

The bill is expected to pass without any amendments or conditions on aid to Israel. “It is a dark day for democracy,” Sanders said on X of his amendment being shot down, “when the Senate will not even allow a vote on whether U.S. taxpayer dollars should fund Netanyahu’s war against the Palestinian people.”

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