How Senate Democrats Are Divided on Israel

Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a proposal from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to place stricter conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel. The resolution would have mandated the State Department to file a report within thirty days on whether Israel has committed violations of human rights in its campaign in Gaza. It received only eleven votes in the Senate, with the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, calling the resolution’s existence a “gift” to Hamas and Iran. (I interviewed Senator Cardin about aid to Israel and human rights late last year.) The lone Republican vote came from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

I recently spoke by phone with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, one of the ten Democrats who voted for the resolution. Merkley, who was an early supporter of a ceasefire, recently visited the Rafah border crossing with Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, and expressed concern about the lack of aid reaching Gazans. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed tensions within the Senate Democratic caucus, what he saw at the Gaza border, and why he thinks the American relationship with Israel must change.

Can you talk to me a little bit about why you voted for the Sanders resolution, and what you saw as the debate, both in the Senate and in the Democratic Party?

The amendment calls for our government to analyze carefully whether the actions that are occurring, in regard to Gaza, are violations of international law. I’ve had significant concerns about several aspects of what is unfolding in Gaza, particularly the dislocation of individuals, the undersupply of humanitarian aid, and the enormous injuries and deaths that have occurred from the bombing campaign. I think it merits having our government take a very close look at that, to give us the best understanding of what is unfolding.

In terms of the people who did not vote for it, what was your sense of their reasoning? Did you talk to your fellow-senators about it?

Yes. There was quite a substantial discussion within our caucus. Many, many individuals—I would say the majority of the caucus—do have significant concerns about the issues that are unfolding, the issues that I have mentioned. They’re wrestling with whether this particular provision was the right way to approach getting better insight on those issues.

It seems like this provision was not particularly extreme. It’s not asking for that much. The people who, as you say, have concerns about this but did not vote for it—what is your sense of how they’re thinking through this, and what they would in fact like to see?

Well, I think you’ve probably heard Senator Ben Cardin’s explanation of the arguments, but they include that the amount of details the U.S. government would have to document and analyze would be hard to do within the thirty days required by this provision. They also argue that we have other elements, including things like the Leahy Laws, that are designed to make sure that our partners are operating within international law. I’m not really the person to answer that question. You should direct it to those who voted that way.

Maybe you can tell me why you thought Senator Cardin’s arguments were insufficient, then.

Well, I’ve been very engaged in human-rights issues. I chair the Human Rights Commission and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. I’ve conducted congressional delegations to examine challenges in other countries, including in Burma. I’ve gone to the American border to try to understand better how the policies that President Trump had in place affected children. The issue of abiding by international human-rights standards is really a core part of the work that I do here in the Senate.

I strongly supported Israel’s right to go after Hamas. I share the horror and the shock of the attack Hamas committed on Israel. It triggered the reactions that we had here in the United States after 9/11. Again, I strongly support Israel’s campaign against Hamas, but how they conduct it matters. We, as a key partner to Israel, have even a higher level of responsibility to examine how the campaign is conducted, and ask some tough questions when we see things that give us deep concern. I have been deeply disturbed by the enormous number of deaths, the enormous number of injuries, the hugely inadequate supply of humanitarian aid, and the massive dislocation of the Gaza and Palestinian population.

Why is it that you feel our current law is not sufficient for this? Because I think that was part of Senator Cardin’s argument, but you disagree, correct?

I feel like a report within the next thirty days would be very useful in getting our Administration’s best understanding of the strategy Israel is using, and the consequences of their approach, and whether there are alternatives. The Administration has said they have pushed for a much more targeted approach against Hamas, and so it would be valuable for us to understand how that would look different from the campaign that Israel has conducted.

Elizabeth Warren said recently that she thought half of the Democratic caucus in the Senate was prepared, potentially, to condition aid to Israel and other nations based on their compliance with international law in a more formal way. What is your read of that?

This sounds to me, Isaac, like a reference to the Chris Van Hollen amendment, for all of the aid to be utilized in accordance with international law. [The amendment to the aid bill working its way through Congress would require that weapons sent to any country are used in accordance with American and international law.] Of course, that’s already in international law, but it’s emphasizing that, and I do feel at least half our caucus is very supportive of passing such an amendment.

Can you explain to me the internal dynamics whereby half the caucus would be open to an amendment like that, but only a fifth of the caucus was open to the Sanders resolution? Because the Sanders amendment seems like a less serious step.

The Van Hollen amendment is a restatement of international law, and, really, it should have the support of every single senator. The Sanders amendment was calling for a report from our State Department and an analysis of the conclusions to be delivered about whether Israel’s in violation of international law. So asking for such a report puts the U.S. State Department in the role of doing a serious determination, and a number of members do not want our government to wrestle with and produce such a determination. I feel that, given the level of calamity in Gaza, an analysis of the strategy used by Israel is completely appropriate and valuable in this current situation.

But is the discrepancy because the Van Hollen amendment does not specifically call out Israel, and is about aid more broadly?

Well, again, the Van Hollen amendment re-states international law, and it re-states it for all aid to all countries. The fact that it’s being done at this point on this particular package, under the circumstances that occur in the Middle East, makes people understand the implicit message that we are concerned about whether international law has been followed, but it is an implicit message, rather than an explicit message like the Bernie Sanders amendment.

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