WASHINGTON ― Sen. Bernie Sanders has introduced a resolution that would, if passed, block the pending sale of $735 million in arms to Israel amid its widening fight with Hamas.
The resolution is emblematic of the rift among Democrats about how much to pressure Israel over the conflict ― and the willingness of left-leaning lawmakers to challenge the Biden administration. Some lawmakers have targeted arms sales as a way for Washington to leverage a cease-fire, and Sanders’ resolution could at least spark a debate over that course, even if its chances of passage are slim.
“At a moment when U.S.-made bombs are devastating Gaza, and killing women and children, we cannot simply let another huge arms sale go through without even a Congressional debate,” Sanders, I-Vt., said in a statement Thursday. “I believe that the United States must help lead the way to a peaceful and prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians. We need to take a hard look at whether the sale of these weapons is actually helping do that, or whether it is simply fueling conflict.”
The resolution would block the proposed transfer of U.S. defense articles, services and technical data to support weapons integration, flight test and hardware delivery of Joint Direct Attack Munition variants and Small Diameter Bomb Increment I variants for end use by the Israeli Defense Ministry.
The resolution is privileged, which means Sanders will have the option to bring it up for a vote.
The resolution is a companion to the one introduced Wednesday in the House by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. Among the supporters is Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel.
President Joe Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to say he expects a “significant de-escalation” in the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, “on the path to a cease-fire,” according to a White House statement. However, Netanyahu responded with a statement saying he is “determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved.”
The Biden administration has relied on what officials described as “quiet, intensive” diplomacy, including quashing a U.N. Security Council statement that would have addressed a cease-fire. The administration’s handling opened a divide between Biden and some Democratic lawmakers, dozens of whom have called for a cease-fire.
Democratic leaders have largely expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and this week they they scuttled a letter from House members to Biden calling for the arms sale to be delayed. That move failed to stifle the internal dissent, however, and Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution surfaced soon after.
Though Pocan on Wednesday predicted that measure would net few votes, he argued that arms sales are a “pressure point” Washington can use, particularly after Netanyahu dismissed Biden’s call for peace. He also voiced a nuanced view, supporting Israel’s U.S.-subsidized Iron Dome missile defense system.
“I’ve always supported Iron Dome because the idea that if a rocket’s coming in and you can take it out, you’ve de-escalated the situation and you got fewer people killed in both Palestine and Israel. But if you use it for that, and then you still send 20 times the rockets back in and take out buildings, and kill children, and take out roads to hospitals, then that’s not [a de-escalation],” Pocan said.
“This is sending a message that I think we should be doing everything we can to provide for the dignity of all people ― Israeli and Palestinian ― and these are some pressure points that we have to do that,” Pocan said of the efforts to halt the U.S.-Israel arms deal.
The sentiment dovetails with increasing support for Palestinians from the American public. Favorable views of the Palestinian Authority are at a new high of 30 percent, according to Gallup’s latest annual update, and support rose for the U.S. to put more pressure on Israel, from 27 percent in 2018 to 34 percent this year.
Pro-Israel sentiment still dominates in the polls and Congress, where Republicans have scolded Democrats for the mixed messaging and offered staunch support for Israel’s right to defend itself.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued that the Democratic Party, which previously worked with Republicans to aid Israel via the Iron Dome, precision-guided munitions and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, has been hijacked by “the radical fringe.”
“[The Israelis] aren’t at war with the Palestinian people. They’re fighting Hamas, a terrorist group that opposes a two-state solution; that wants Israel destroyed,” McConnell said. “Let’s dispense with the ‘both sides’ nonsense.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.