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Democrats are finally starting to break with Israel — at least in their words

Senate Democrats have increasingly criticised the Israeli government. But they have not taken legislative action to hold Israel accountable for its actions in Gaza.  (Getty Images)
Senate Democrats have increasingly criticised the Israeli government. But they have not taken legislative action to hold Israel accountable for its actions in Gaza. (Getty Images)

During the final hours of debate on the security supplemental package, Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland excoriated the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza. In doing so, he all but accused Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of committing international war crimes.

“Kids in Gaza are now dying from the deliberate withholding of food,” he said on the floor of the United States Senate. “In addition to the horror of that news, one other thing is true. That is a war crime.”

Van Hollen is one of only a handful of Democratic senators who supports a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. And hearing any United States senator say Israel has effectively committed war crimes is unprecedented, given widespread support for Israel across both parties.

Van Hollen joined 47 other Democratic Senators in the wee hours of Tuesday morning to vote for a national security legislative package that included $14.1bn in security assistance to Israel, along with aid to Ukraine and allies in the Indo-Pacific to push back against China. By comparison, the bill only included $9.15bn in humanitarian assistance to be split between Gaza, the West Bank and Ukraine.

The words came as Israel began a military campaign in Rafah, Gaza, which the White House condemned. The same day of Van Hollen’s blistering speech, President Joe Biden said Israel “should not proceed without a credible plan.” But during a press briefing on Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters when asked about whether the White House would strip aid to Israel that “We're going to continue to support Israel. They have a right to defend themselves against Hamas and we're going to make sure they have the tools and the capabilities to do that.”

The White House and Democrats in the Senate are slowly realising that Israel’s current military campaign is incredibly unpopular politically and has caused a humanitarian crisis. An Associated Press-NORC poll earlier this month showed that about half of US adults think Israel’s military response in the Gaza strip has gone too far. Not only has it harmed Democrats with Muslim Americans, who make up a sizeable portion of the electorate in Michigan, but it has also hurt Biden with younger voters.

But as of right now, while Democratic rhetoric around Israel grows more critical, the party is not willing to take concrete actions to force Israel’s conduct to change.

During deliberations on the supplemental package, Van Hollen led a group of 17 other Democrats and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to support an amendment that would have required the State Department to review how weapons made supplied by the United States are used around the world, including those used by Israel in Gaza.

Then, on Thursday, the White House released a memo that outlined existing laws which state that countries receiving US aid must follow humanitarian guidelines. That includes providing “credible and reliable written assurances” that countries are complying with international law and humanitarian standards.

As a result, the 19 senators backed down, with Van Hollen calling it a “BFD.” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has criticized the Netanyahu government in the past, told me the memo was “historic.” But White House memos still can be intepreted at the discretion of the president, whereas legislation would have had enforceable mandates.

As Republicans continued to drag out the process for the security package, Democrats began to vocalize their concerns about the campaign in Rafah. Senator Mark Warner, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me that “I think we're all concerned about the number of innocent Palestinians being killed... I hope the Netanyahu government comes forward with a plan.”

Warner is far from a peacenik and, indeed, he represents Virginia, where a number of defence contractors are based, so his words hold extra weight. But when pressed about what the Senate could do, he said “there are things that are included” in the security package.

His colleague from Virginia, Senator Tim Kaine, who was part of the 19 senators who wanted an amendment, also criticized Israel’s campaign in Rafah.

“They’re not visibly listening to us to the degree that we think somebody who was relying on us so much should,” he told me. In the end, he and Warner both voted to authorize the package.

Similarly, Elizabeth Warren told me Israel “should not be attacking Rafah, period.” But when I asked if it could affect her vote, she said, “Right now, the security package is about getting money to Ukraine,” and called the decision to support Ukraine “one of the most consequential decisions of the 21st century.”

In the end, only three Senators in the Democratic caucus -- including Sanders, Senators Peter Welch of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the latter of whom both support a ceasefire -- voted against the security package. Merkley and Welch specifically cited Israel’s actions, while Sanders told me about Rafah that “You're looking at a massive humanitarian disaster.”

The consensus on Israel being an indispensable ally in the Middle East has been so ingrained within both parties that politicians even slightly criticizing Israel has taken years. That alone is progress. But the White House’s decision to not take concrete action to hold Israel accountable and Senate Democrats’ decision to not demand accountability from the White House shows this progress will not be enough to prevent Israel from taking further action.