The Democrats’ New Policy That Could See Bernie and Biden Find Middle Ground on Aid to Israel

WASHINGTON – The issue of U.S. military aid to Israel has divided the Democratic Party over the past year, but a new policy that could unite the party on this thorny issue has been presented over the weekend – to continue transferring assistance to Israel in the billions of dollars, but preventing it from using the funds to boost the settlement enterprise and advancing West Bank annexation.

Politicians on the party’s left-wing, most notably Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have called to condition or withhold the billions that Washington gives Israel in order to pressure it into ending the occupation of the West Bank. Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, who defeated Sanders in the party’s primary, has rejected this idea and called it “outrageous.” Many moderate and centrist Democrats strongly agree with Biden on the issue.

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A group of Democratic senators led by Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen – including Sanders, but also several senators who supported Biden in the primary – submitted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that states that the $3.8 billion in annual military aid earmarked by former President Barack Obama will continue to go to Israel, but that none of it should be used for advancing the cause of unilateral annexation of West Bank settlements.

“I am a strong supporter of robust security assistance to our friend and ally Israel, including the memorandum of understanding forged by President Obama, providing $3.8 billion in annual foreign military financing and missile defense support," Van Hollen wrote in a press release. "However, I oppose the use of any of these funds to support the unilateral annexation of Palestinian territories by Israel.”

The senator added that “Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory would undermine the long-held understandings between the United States, Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community and would ultimately undermine the security of Israel itself.

"It will end the chance of a viable two-state solution. And is a violation of international law," he said, adding that "Neither the U.S. government nor American taxpayers should finance or facilitate this unilateral move that goes against our shared democratic values.”

According to Van Hollen, “No U.S. funds are currently being expended on unilateral annexation, and this amendment would ensure that remains the case. We must work together to pursue a viable, negotiated two-state solution.”

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who also signed the amendment, said that “There is no way unilateral annexation of the West Bank by Israel will bring the region any closer to peace – in fact, it will do the opposite – and the United States should have no role in encouraging it. That’s why we’ve introduced an amendment to the defense bill that prohibits U.S. funds in facilitating any such decision. It’s the right thing to do for U.S. national security, for the sake of our longstanding bilateral relationship with Israel, and for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who endorsed Biden in the primary, explained her support for the amendment: “I have always supported a robust security partnership with Israel, but U.S. funds and equipment should not be used for anything that would violate international law or undermine the prospects of a two-state solution.”

Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, also a Biden supporter, offered a similar message: “I am a proud co-sponsor of the U.S.-Israel Security Assistance Act of 2020. This amendment makes clear that this assistance and other U.S. funds may not be used to support Israeli annexation of the West Bank. I strongly oppose any such move, which could destroy the prospect for a two state solution, negatively impact Israel’s future, and betray our shared democratic values by denying Palestinians’ right to self-determination.”

The proposed new policy could gain popularity among the Democratic Party as a middle ground between Sanders’ call to limit military aid and Biden’s total rejection of it.

Biden often takes pride in the fact that the Obama administration provided Israel with more military aid than any other, and that he as vice president was involved in the negotiations that led to the signing of the 2016 memorandum of understandings on the subject. Last month, his top foreign policy adviser said that if elected president, Biden would not withhold or cut aid to Israel, even if annexation takes place.

One Democratic staffer who was involved in drafting the amendment told Haaretz that while it is “unlikely” to pass, the very fact that it has been introduced and enjoys the support of prominent senators, reflects the change in discourse within the party. Biden, however, is expected for now to continue to stick to his previous stance on military aid to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing for a unilateral annexation ever since Trump's Mideast peace plan was unveiled in January. However, Netanyahu missed his July 1 target date for starting the annexation process and said he would continue to discuss the matter with the Trump administration.