Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) talks with reporters following his meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on Aug. 30.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced Monday evening that he opposes what he sees as the unconditional military aid to Israel that President Joe Biden has requested as part of a supplemental spending bill due for a vote this week.
Sanders, who drew left-wing ire in recent weeks for stopping short of endorsing a permanent cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, cited his concerns about the scale of Palestinian civilian deaths and displacement.
He repeatedly invoked what he sees as illegal actions taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the most right-wing Israeli government in history.
“What the Netanyahu government is doing is immoral,” Sanders said in remarks on the Senate floor. “It is in violation of international law ― and the United States should not be complicit in those actions.”
Sander also clarified that he still supports funding for Israeli defensive technologies ― presumably including the Iron Dome missile defense system that Israel has used to stop rockets fired by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs Gaza.
“I believe it is appropriate for us to support defense systems that will protect Israeli citizens from incoming missile and rocket attacks,” he said. “But I believe that it would be irresponsible for us to provide an additional $10.1 billion in unconditional military aid that will allow the Netanyahu government to continue its current offensive military approach.”
The clock is running out for Sanders to secure changes to the supplemental funding bill. Also on Monday evening, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that he would put Biden’s funding requests ― more than $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, $14 billion in aid to Israel and $14 billion to beef up border enforcement ― up for a vote on Wednesday. Ahead of that vote, he plans to have the entire Senate hear from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy via video on Tuesday about “what’s at stake” for Ukraine if the funding is not appropriated.
“We can’t ever put a price on defending democracy in its hour of need, because if Ukraine falls, Putin will keep on going, autocrats around the world will be emboldened, democracy ― this grand and noble experiment ― will enter an era of decline,” Schumer said.
It is unclear whether Schumer, who is counting on bipartisan support for the bill, needs Sanders’ vote to pass the overall legislation.
Strictly speaking, Sanders has not ruled out voting for the supplemental spending bill but merely laid out his conditions for supporting the component of the bill explicitly made up of military aid to Israel.
Those conditions are that Israel “dramatically” change its military approach to save the lives of Palestinian civilians, articulate a plan for a “political process” that can secure peace and guarantee those Gaza residents displaced by the war the right to return to their homes. He would further have Israel provide clear assurances that it would end its 16-year blockade of Gaza and not re-occupy the territory, cease killing Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and enact a freeze on settlement expansion.
Sanders also said that he wants more funding in the bill for child care, health care and housing. And he argued that much of the military funding for Ukraine ― and with proper strings attached, Israel ― could come from the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act, which allots Pentagon funding.
“There are pieces of this bill that I strongly support, but in its present form, I do not think it serves the interests of the American people,” he said at the start of his remarks.
It is unlikely that Sanders’ demands will play a major role in stopping the passage of a massive supplemental spending bill to top off U.S. aid to Ukraine and Israel.
Nor was Sanders’ announcement ― in an impassioned floor speech that lasted nearly 10 minutes ― very surprising. He has been ratcheting up his criticism of the Israeli government in recent weeks as the costs of the country’s bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza have grown.
The Vermont independent, a leftist who caucuses with Democrats, called for conditioning U.S. aid on changes in Israeli military practices, a freeze on West Bank settlement growth and other reforms in a late November opinion piece in The New York Times. “This blank check must end,” he reiterated in a Friday floor speech. Monday night’s remarks just confirmed that the supplemental spending bill does not meet his criteria for stricter conditions on aid.
Sanders’ announcement was instead significant because of the influence that Sanders retains, both on the American left and as a representative of that faction in the mainstream media.
Sanders emphasized that he supports continuing to arm Ukraine as it seeks to drive out Russia but noted that Israel has apparently killed more women and children in two months in Gaza than have been confirmed as killed in the Ukraine-Russia war in almost two years’ time (though Ukrainian and international officials believe the figure is higher than official estimates).
“Count me in 100% for the humanitarian support that we need, not only in Gaza but all over this world. … Count me in for serious discussions about how we improve border security. Count me in to help the people of Ukraine withstand Putin’s terrible invasion. But do not count me in to give another $10 billion to a right-wing, extremist government in Israel” led by a prime minister facing a number of criminal corruption charges, he concluded.
Sanders, who is Jewish and spent time on an Israeli kibbutz ― or farm commune ― as a young man, delighted progressives, Arab Americans and Muslim voters during his 2016 run for president when he brought concerns about Palestinian human rights to the presidential debate stage. In the critical state of Michigan, many Arab American voters rewarded him with their votes in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic presidential primaries; in the former contest they helped him pull off an upset against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But Sanders’ views on Israel and the Palestinians have long been more moderate than those of many of his supporters on the left or in the Arab American community. Even prior to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the taking of hostages and the subsequent Israeli invasion, Sanders’ support for a two-state solution to the conflict ― rather than a single bi-national state ― and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement put him at odds with some younger progressives in particular.
After the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, Sanders rankled many supporters with his qualified support for Israel’s right to defend itself, even as other progressive lawmakers called for a permanent cease-fire and end to Israel’s war in Gaza. He even won praise from the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group with which Sanders has often clashed, for validating Israel’s right to pursue the goal of removing Hamas from power in Gaza.
But the mounting toll of Palestinian civilian deaths and displacement has clearly had an effect on Sanders, who is no longer confident that Israel is pursuing its stated military goals with adequate regard for civilians. Sanders voiced criticism of Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war early on, becoming the first senator to call for a humanitarian pause in fighting in late October.
Netanyahu’s refusal Friday to extend the weeklong cease-fire amid an impasse in hostage negotiations with Hamas angered Sanders anew.
Israel and the United States have blamed Hamas for the breakdown in the cease-fire, noting that Hamas engaged in a fatal shooting of Israeli civilians in Jerusalem and fired rockets from Gaza on Thursday, the last day of the cease-fire. Sanders still faulted Netanyahu for escalating his bombardment of southern Gaza the moment that the cease-fire ended on Friday rather than continuing to bargain for hostages.
“Netanyahu’s resumption of bombing in Gaza is beyond the pale,” he wrote on the social media app X. “Two million people are now in south Gaza. Many have fled earlier fighting in the north. The pause must be extended to get more humanitarian aid in and more hostages out.”