Senate declines to consider Bernie Sanders bill to review whether Israel follows US human rights law
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who caucuses with Democrats, argues for increased oversight of assistance to Israel, in the U.S. Senate, Jan. 15, 2024. (Photo: Screenshot)

By Ron Kampeas
January 16, 2024

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly declined to consider a bill advanced by Sen. Bernie Sanders to assess whether Israel is complying with U.S. human rights laws governing the American military aid it receives.

The Senate voted 72-11 across parties to shelve the bill, which would have required the State Department to report to Congress within 30 days on Israeli compliance with international and U.S. human rights laws. All but one of the votes in favor were Democrats. Rand Paul of Kentucky was the single Republican who supported the measure. The motion to shelve the bill was advanced by Sen. Ben Cardin, the Jewish Maryland Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.

Sanders, a Jewish Vermonter who caucuses with Democrats and is the unofficial leader of progressives in Congress, spoke passionately on Tuesday for 10 minutes, flanked by two large photos of Palestinian children in Gaza waiting for food. International aid organizations say the coastal enclave is on the verge of starvation after more than 100 days of war between Israel and Hamas.

Sanders pointed to Israel’s use of American weapons in its campaign against the terror group.

“Almost 2 million people are trying to survive with an inadequate supply for food, water, medicine or fuel, and the humanitarian situation is getting worse by the minute,” Sanders said. “Hundreds of thousands of beautiful children are facing starvation. Given the scale of the destruction and the extensive use of American armed military equipment in this campaign, Congress must act and that is why we must have is vital to the resolution. We must ensure that U.S. aid is being used in accordance with international human rights and our own laws.”

Israel has said it is not obstructing the entry of aid, and blames the slowness of delivery on hapless humanitarian organizations. It also claims Hamas is stealing the aid.

The war began on Oct. 7 when Hamas invaded Israel, killing approximately 1,200 and taking some 250 hostages. More than 23,000 Palestinians have died since Israel launched counterstrikes on Oct. 8, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. Israel has said approximately third of the dead in Gaza are combatants.

Sanders was a vocal defender of Israel’s war effort at first but has grown more critical of the campaign.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied against the bill. “Take 45 seconds to email your Senators and urge them to vote NO on this dangerous resolution,” it said in an action alert to its membership. The bill “falsely implies that Israel is committing gross violations of human rights in its effort to defend itself from Hamas’ barbaric terrorist attack,” the alert said.

It didn’t help Sanders that even among more left-leaning Jewish organizations there was less than full-throated support. Americans for Peace Now, which has called for a ceasefire, backed the bill. But J Street, the larger liberal Israel lobby, said in a statement that while it backed oversight of defense assistance to Israel, it had problems with the bill as written.

“J Street has concerns with specific provisions that have prevented us from offering our full support for this particular resolution, and we have reviewed these concerns with Senator Sanders,” but said in a statement. “We look forward to working with him and others in the near future to craft a resolution that we can support to ensure US oversight and enforcement of Israel’s compliance with U.S. law in its current war in Gaza.”

A spokesman did not answer a query about which “specific provisions” troubled J Street.

Also opposing the bill was the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which, like AIPAC and J Street, fundraises for Democrats.  JDCA said the bill could jeopardize aid to Israel.

“The resolution requires the State Department to issue a report on alleged Israeli human rights violations, and if it fails to do so within 30 days, all U.S. security assistance to Israel would be cut,” JDCA in a statement. “JDCA and the vast majority – 80% – of Jewish voters support U.S. aid to Israel.”

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