Senators overwhelmingly rejected a resolution Tuesday night that would have forced the Biden administration to look into potential human rights abuses perpetrated by Israel in its military campaign in Gaza.
Just 11 senators supported moving to a vote on the resolution, a sign of the body’s unflagging support for Israel, even as the Jewish state now faces allegations of genocide in its ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, forced the vote using a mechanism in U.S. foreign assistance law that can require the State Department to look into the human rights practices of nations receiving U.S. aid. The resolution would have required the department to produce a report within 30 days about any potential abuses and how U.S. weapons have been used by Israel in its Gaza offensive, which has killed 24,000 Palestinians in just over three months.
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“A vote against this resolution … it says, ‘I don’t want more information,’ ” Sanders argued in a floor speech. “ ‘I want to keep my head in the sand. I don’t want to see what’s going on.’ ”
The resolution would not have automatically altered U.S. aid to Israel, but it faced staunch opposition from the Biden administration, congressional Republicans and most Democrats, who raised concerns about the message the vote would send to its ally.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the resolution “performative left-wing politics” Tuesday and said passing it could tie the hands of a close ally. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it “the most tone-deaf thing maybe in the history of the Senate.”
Democrats who opposed the resolution were more muted in their criticism, saying that they shared Sanders’ concerns about the civilian death toll and the need for more humanitarian aid in Gaza, but that they believed this vote would have emboldened Israel’s enemies.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) called the vote “a gift to Hamas, a gift to Iran … an indictment against Israel.” He suggested that the resolution would imperil ongoing hostage negotiations and even “makes it more likely” that Iran and its proxies would escalate their attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets in the region.
“We are trying to call attention to some unpleasant realities that I think a lot of people would prefer not to deal with,” Sanders said in an interview before the vote failed.
The result reaffirms Congress’s bipartisan support for Israel in the war, which began after Hamas fighters killed 1,200 Israelis in an Oct. 7 surprise attack and took more than 200 hostages. The Israeli counteroffensive has drawn international criticism in recent weeks as the United Nations has described a Gaza population on the brink of famine, with most of the territory destroyed and its population displaced, and where “children are dying at an alarming rate.” Gaza health officials say roughly two-thirds of those killed in Israel’s bombing campaign have been women and children, and Israel has allowed limited humanitarian aid from entering the territory, on the basis that it could be used by militants for nefarious purposes.
The Israeli government has strongly rejected the international criticism of its operations, saying that it tries to minimize civilian casualties while Hamas hides within the civilian population, employing underground tunnels, hospitals and schools as hideouts and control centers.
The issue has divided Democratic lawmakers, with some echoing the calls by many nations for a cease-fire, while others support continued military action. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers have signed onto letters raising concerns with how the Biden administration has handled the war, from its attempts to bypass Congress when it transfers weapons to the nation to how it is pressing the Israeli government to avoid more civilian casualties.
But Tuesday’s resolution did not attract the support of some Democrats who have joined those efforts, including Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn) and Dick Durbin (Ill.).
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who supported the resolution, said that it can be “awkward and difficult” to scrutinize a close ally and partner. “But when there has been this level of casualties and we are this closely tied to it, it is the right thing to do,” he said.
In addition to Merkley and Sanders, Sens. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) supported the measure.
The White House opposed the resolution. Biden has said that Israel has engaged in “indiscriminate bombing” and that the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued a military strategy that has resulted in far too many civilian deaths. But Biden has remained steadfast in his support of the nation, one of the United States’ closest allies, and his administration argues that Israel is changing its tactics in the war.
“We do not believe that this resolution is the right vehicle to address these issues. And we don’t think now is the right time,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “The Israelis have indicated they are preparing to transition their operations to a much lower intensity. And we believe that transition will be helpful both in terms of reducing civilian casualties, as well as increasing humanitarian assistance.”