Rank-and-File Democrats Slow to Call for Restricting Aid to Israel

Despite pressure from Palestinian rights activists, a number of top Democratic lawmakers remain silent on imposing aid restrictions to the U.S.'s Middle East ally.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: Chairwoman Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) questions witnesses on the Indian Health Service response to the Covid-19 pandemic during a House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies hearing on June 11, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies subcommittee Chair Betty McCollum, D-Minn., during a hearing on June 11, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Early on Wednesday morning, 20 members of American Jewish group IfNotNow gathered outside Democratic New York Rep. Jerry Nadler’s lower Manhattan office. Blocking traffic, much to the chagrin of those driving by, and singing songs, the activists had one message for Nadler: Now is the time to co-sponsor Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to prohibit Israel from using U.S. military aid to demolish Palestinian homes, arrest Palestinian children, and annex Palestinian land.

“For my whole life, Jerry Nadler has been a member of Congress fighting for the children of our city,” blared Ben Pakman, a member of IfNotNow, which opposes Israel’s military occupation, on a loudspeaker. “Jerry, you have an opportunity to continue your track record of being a fighter for children — but this time, not in New York. This time, you gotta fight for the children in Jerusalem, and Gaza, and the West Bank.”

In the past, Nadler has come out against the idea of leveraging U.S. military aid to change Israeli policy, and in his statement decrying the violence in Israel-Palestine, he made no mention of the U.S. military aid package. Nadler’s office did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept.

IfNotNow was among numerous groups pushing for more Democratic support for McCollum’s bill amid Israel’s assault on Gaza and Israeli police brutality targeting Jerusalem’s Palestinians. The bill, which would impose “end-use restrictions” on how Israel can employ U.S. aid, currently has 19 co-sponsors. As part of the bill’s push to prohibit U.S. military aid from being used to subsidize Israeli human rights abuses, the legislation would implement unprecedented transparency measures that would account for how Israel uses U.S. military aid in the occupied Palestinian territories. The U.S. government sends Israel an annual check of $3.8 billion in military aid, but there is little done to prevent Israel from using such aid to violate human rights, despite U.S. laws prohibiting exactly that.

“Everyone wants peace, but peace will not happen without clear limits placed on how Israel uses our aid. Now is the time to send a clear message to the Israeli government: Not one dollar more of U.S. military aid can be used to demolish Palestinian homes, annex Palestinian lands, and torture or kill Palestinian children,” McCollum told The Intercept, while emphasizing that she supports U.S. support for Israel’s Iron Dome, the U.S.-funded system that shoots down Palestinian-fired rockets. “Members need to decide if they want to talk peace and perpetuate conflict or if they want to really work toward reducing violence and conflict while actually taking a stand to advance human rights.”

“Everyone wants peace, but peace will not happen without clear limits placed on how Israel uses our aid.”

Palestinian rights activists have spent the week emailing and calling their representatives in Congress in a bid to garner support for McCollum’s bill. Advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace Action told The Intercept that its supporters had sent over 10,000 emails to congressional offices in recent days, while supporters of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights sent over 51,000 emails since Wednesday.

In Massachusetts, former staffers for Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., disappointed in his statement this week supporting Israel’s “right to defend itself,” called for him to introduce his own version of McCollum’s bill in the Senate and to demand a congressional investigation into how U.S. weapons are being used in the occupied Palestinian territories. Markey sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which oversees U.S. foreign policy.

“Senator Markey’s refusal to support justice in Palestine is antithetical to the Green New Deal and the progressive movement that won him re-election,” said a statement signed by former staffers and numerous local officials.

Advocates were buoyed on Thursday night by a string of impassioned defenses on Capitol Hill of Palestinian rights, something relatively rare in the halls of Congress. Progressives like McCollum, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D.-N.Y., and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D.-Mich., the only Palestinian American in Congress, took to the House floor to denounce Israel’s attack on Gaza and call for conditions on U.S. assistance to Israel.


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“As long as the message from Washington is that our military support for Israel is unconditional,” Tlaib said in her floor speech, “Netanyahu’s extremist, right-wing government will continue to expand settlements, continue to demolish homes, and continue to make the prospects for peace impossible.”

McCollum made her own case for placing restrictions on how aid to Israel is used. “The unrestricted, unconditioned $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military aid enables — it gives a green light — to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, because there is no accountability and there is no oversight by Congress,” McCollum said. “This must change. Not one dollar of U.S. aid to Israel should go toward the military detention of Palestinian children, the annexation of Palestinian lands, or the destruction of Palestinian homes.”

The speeches were a glimmer of hope for the Palestinian rights movement’s wish to drive a wedge on Israel between Congress and the White House, which has backed Israel’s assault on Gaza, casting it as part of Israel’s “right to self-defense.”

“Not one dollar of U.S. aid to Israel should go toward the military detention of Palestinian children, the annexation of Palestinian lands, or the destruction of Palestinian homes.”

“It’s very clear that Blinken and Biden are not about to step up and hold the Israeli government accountable,” said Beth Miller, Jewish Voice for Peace Action’s government affairs manager. “That means it has to be Congress that forces it. Congress controls the purse strings of our budget, and the only thing that will change Israel’s actions is if they feel our military funding is at stake.”

But McCollum’s bill faces an uphill battle. Only one member of Congress, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., has joined since the current crisis in Israel-Palestine began. Huffman declined an interview request from The Intercept. The Intercept contacted 10 Democratic members of Congress to inquire about whether they would support McCollum’s bill. Nobody offered a comment.

Some rights advocates privately grumbled that J Street, a pro-Israel liberal advocacy group that endorsed McCollum’s bill, wasn’t doing more to get their congressional allies to sign on. During J Street’s lobby week on Capitol Hill last month, the group did not ask members to support any specific bill, according to a copy of J Street’s directions to supporters that The Intercept obtained on what to push for in meetings. (Jewish Currents first reported that J Street would not be making a major push on behalf of McCollum’s bill, despite its endorsement.)

Asked about rights advocates’ disappointment, Dylan Williams, J Street’s senior vice president of government affairs, told The Intercept that “we’re taking the time to explain to lawmakers how end-use restrictions on aid would work in the Israeli-Palestinian context. During J Street’s advocacy week and in the days since, our supporters set out for members of Congress why we are calling for such restrictions and why we support the McCollum bill as an example of legislation that would enact them.”

The campaign to impose conditions on aid to Israel has run into a wall of opposition from Israel lobby groups. Last month, more than 300 representatives signed an American Israel Public Affairs Committee-supported letter against conditioning aid, which stated that “reducing funding or adding conditions on security assistance would be detrimental to Israel’s ability to defend itself against all threats.”

Among the signatories to AIPAC’s letter were Progressive Caucus members such as Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who has been a particular target of the Palestinian rights movement. While Khanna, in 2017, co-sponsored McCollum’s bill to prohibit U.S. funding of Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children, he has so far refused to support her current bill.

“The message if they don’t act is, Israel has a blank check when it comes to U.S. support.”

In a statement, Khanna told The Intercept that he signed the AIPAC letter because he “fully support[s] $3.8 billion in aid to Israel annually” and that he doesn’t “support adding additional conditions for Israel to receive that full amount of aid.” Khanna does, however, support “end-use restrictions on any U.S. foreign assistance so it is not used to violate the Leahy Law or human rights.”

“Khanna’s been a leader on rights-based, rights-respecting U.S. foreign policy abroad,” said Brad Parker, senior adviser on policy and advocacy for Defense for Children International-Palestine. “It’s disappointing that there seems to be something that’s chilling his approach to Palestinian rights.”

Continued refusals to co-sponsor the McCollum bill would send a disappointing message, said Zaha Hassan, a Palestinian American human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The message if they don’t act is, Israel has a blank check when it comes to U.S. support,” said Hassan. “At this moment, when you’re seeing mobs attacking Palestinian citizens of Israel, beating them on the streets and in their homes, that can’t be the message we want to send — that Israel has a blanket right to ‘self-defense’ while it’s dropping U.S.-made bombs on civilian buildings.”

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