A growing chorus of Democrats are warning that Israel’s fierce response to Hamas’s terrorist attacks is getting tougher to justify — and eroding support for Tel Aviv on Capitol Hill.
The lawmakers are quick to endorse Israel’s right to defend itself, particularly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks killed more than 1,000 people and saw hundreds more taken hostage.
But Israel’s ensuing hunt for Hamas militants has led to more than 26,000 deaths in Gaza, more than half of them women and children, according to Gazan and U.N. officials.
And the spiraling casualty count — combined with growing allegations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done too little to minimize the civilian harm — is sparking new reproval in Washington of Israel’s military tactics while escalating calls for an immediate ceasefire, if only temporary, to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
“A lot of people that I talk to have real concerns about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza, and their conversations with me in recent times have been that we need to have some ceasefire, some assessment made that the killing has to stop,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.
“At some point, just because one group started it doesn’t mean you move forward and annihilate a lot of innocent people who really had nothing to do with the thing,” he continued. “People feel that it’s a bit much, and that you can’t try to hold on to power with that expanded killing that’s going on — children, women, who had nothing to do with the situation.”
The concerns are escalating just as Congress is poised to consider a package of national security proposals combining tougher migration policies on the U.S.-Mexico border with billions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine and Israel.
The fate of the legislation has already been thrown into doubt by staunch opposition from House conservatives to both the Ukraine funding and domestic border provisions. But the path gets even tougher if liberal Democrats start to balk over concerns that the Israel aid will be used for the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has led the charge in opposition to at least some of the Israel funds, accusing Washington of abetting the deaths of civilians in Gaza. He’s crafting an amendment to the national security package that would maintain the funding for Israel’s defense weapon systems, but cut $10.1 billion in funding for what his office characterizes as “offensive weaponry … for Netanyahu’s right-wing government.”
“This is not some abstract horror show that’s taking place in some far corners of the world. This is being done with U.S. military aid,” Sanders said Wednesday on SiriusXM’s The Dean Obeidallah Show.”
“America is complicit in this and it has got to stop.”
Democrats have, for years, been frequent critics of the conservative Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But that scrutiny has intensified since his most recent victory in 2022, when he joined forces with several far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, forming the most hardline ruling coalition in Israeli history and forging a cabinet that includes nationalist firebrands with a long record of promoting anti-Arab sentiment.
At least two of those cabinet ministers joined a recent rally of Jewish settlers calling for the Jewish takeover over Gaza — a position Netanyahu has officially opposed.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), a Jewish Democrat who’s fought for both the return of the hostages and humanitarian aid for Gaza, said he’s worried that the extremist views of those coalition ministers has already eroded American support for Israel — on and off of Capitol Hill.
“A lot of the statements and actions of the right-wingers in Netanyahu’s war cabinet are dramatically undermining Netanyahu’s position in the U.S. and in Congress,” Raskin said. “They had a conference last week all about the removal of the Palestinians from Gaza, and then the resettlement of Gaza.
“That becomes a very serious political problem here, if that is the rhetoric of people in Netanyahu’s cabinet.”
The debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East has long divided Democrats, but those disputes have become only more pronounced since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, pitting Israel’s staunchest defenders against liberal lawmakers fiercely critical of Netenyahu’s retaliatory response in Gaza. Some have accused Israel of genocide.
Republicans are much more united on the issue. Most of them are staunchly supportive of Israel’s military operations in Gaza, which they maintain are necessary to root out the threat of Hamas once and for all. Some contend that the regional popularity of Hamas means that all Palestinians in Gaza are complicit in terrorism.
“These are not innocent Palestinian civilians,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) told peace activists in the Capitol last week.
The issue has become an enormous headache for President Biden as he seeks reelection this year, as Muslim voters, who flocked to Biden in the 2020 contest, are furious with the president’s refusal to call for a ceasefire. Many of those critics are vowing to withhold their support in November — a threat that could have outsized significance in several battleground states.
One of those states is Michigan, where Biden visited last week to shore up support with union workers and other friendly constituencies. But he was also confronted by protestors irate with his continued support for Israel, some of whom accused him of killing babies.
Biden has taken a number of steps to try to ease those tensions.
He’s dispatched top cabinet officials to the Middle East in an effort to build regional support for the release of hostages and a ceasefire agreement. He’s pushed Netanyahu to work towards the creation of a Palestinian state when the conflict in Gaza subsides — a move the Israeli leader has repeatedly rejected. And on Thursday, he issued an executive order slapping sanctions on Israeli settlers accused of violent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.
As part of that ongoing campaign, Secretary of State Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel this week to a handful of Middle Eastern countries, where he’ll be pressing for a two-month ceasefire and the release of all the remaining hostages.
That proposal has been stymied by Hamas’s counter-demands for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and the removal of all Israeli forces from Gaza during the ceasefire — conditions Netanyhau has rejected out of hand.
While the delicate talks continue, and the casualties pile up, Democrats are becoming more vocal in their contention that the civilian casualties are too many.
“Everyone is pained by thousands of people dying,” Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, told reporters last week. “Nobody wants that to continue.”
Mychael Schnell contributed reporting.