senator bernie sanders

Why Oppose Bernie’s Bill

Three reasons senators voted down Bernie Sanders’ bill requiring a report on Israel’s conduct in Gaza

This week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) forced a vote on a measure that would bring U.S. scrutiny to Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war. He wanted to do this by invoking a provision of U.S. law that requires the state department examine the human rights record of countries receiving U.S. aid. You can read news coverage here.

The principle behind this is simple. If the United States is supplying weapons, those weapons should be used in keeping with U.S. interests and values. So the United States has every right to insist that its aid not be used to violate human rights or humanitarian law.

There is an obvious irony here, as of course the United States itself is often guilty of using its weapons in ways that seem to contradict international law. But since there is no donor state looking over the United States’s shoulder, and since it has a veto in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. is usually able to avoid consequences. But of course inability to hold the U.S. accountable doesn’t mean that Israel (or any other country) should get a blank check to commit violations too.

Sanders’ Reasons

 Sanders justified his proposal as common sense. He pointed out that it doesn’t impose any restriction or limitation on military aid. He explains that in light of the tremendous death toll and damage Israel has inflicted on Gaza, it’s only reasonable to ask whether humanitarian law has been upheld.

Another bill supporter, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), made a similar point. She explained that while she supports Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, she wants to be clear that Netanyahu’s government doesn’t have permission to conduct the war any way he wants and that United States support is contingent on Israel adhering to norms of humanitarian law.

Nevertheless, the resolution was soundly defeated 72-11. There seem to be three main reasons senators voted against it.

Republicans Say Israel Has Done Nothing Wrong

Some senators (mostly Republican) expressed certainty that Israel is not doing anything wrong. Mitch McConnel (R-KY) called the bill ‘performative left wing politics,’ while Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a Senate speech, “Hamas is doing everything they can to expose civilians to military action, and Israel is trying in a reasonable way to lessen the exposure.”

It’s difficult to accept this as a reason to vote against the bill, however. First, whatever your opinion and final conclusion may be, the vast scale of destruction in Gaza must at least raise some questions about Israel’s conduct. Also, as Josh Paul, a former State Department official who resigned due to disagreement with Biden’s policies towards Israel said in a statement, if you truly believe Israel is doing nothing wrong then why be afraid of a brief State Department investigation?

Automatic Aid Cutoff

A completely different objection is that the way the law works, if this bill passed the State Department would have 30 days to prepare its report. At that point, if the report wasn’t done aid would automatically be cut off. This was a major concern of some senators, who argued that since this bill begins a process where cutting off aid to Israel is a possible outcome, bill supporters would likely be mischaracterized as having that intent. Some senators said that while in principle they would go along with an investigation, since this step carries with it potentially automatic legal repercussions they weren’t on board.

Behind the Scenes is Better

A third objection is that the proper way to raise humanitarian objections is behind the scenes with the Israeli government, not via a public report. This was the attitude of Chris Coons (D- DE), who explained that he was concerned about many of the issues Sanders raised and planned to continue bringing them up with the administration and with Israel. But he felt this resolution would be seen as a public rebuke that would embolden Israel’s enemies and be counterproductive.

This is what President Biden says as well. The President opposed the Senate bill, saying that his administration raises humanitarian concerns with the Israeli government privately, such that public reports mandated by congress would be unhelpful. Sanders’ resolution could in fact signal a rift between congress and the administration that Israel’s opponents might exploit.

Jewish Teachings On How To Rebuke Our Fellow

This disagreement mirrors Jewish teachings about how to fulfill the mitzvah of rebuking someone who is doing wrong. We are taught that initially we should do this in private. That avoids the significant harm of shaming someone in public, and also increases the chances that the person we are rebuking will listen without throwing up defenses and indignant justifications to avoid being seen negatively by peers. Only after private attempts have been exhausted, if it is the only way to prevent future harm to ourselves or others, are we allowed to rebuke someone publicly.

Some senators may genuinely believe that private communication with Israel’s government is the most effective way to go about influencing Israel’s military conduct. Of course Israel may not accept every criticism, but at least U.S. officials have the ear of their Israeli counterparts and Israel is highly motivated to maintain U.S. support. So quiet diplomacy may make a difference. On the other hand, public reports may make Israel feel even more isolated, attacked and threatened, causing it to simply harden its stance that it is fighting a justified war. The result of publicly rebuking Israel may even be negative, causing it to resist any change lest it be seen as admitting to having done wrong.

Others may feel that private diplomacy has failed. Based both on statements of Israeli leaders and Israel’s military actions, they don’t see movement in the direction they want. Saving lives in Gaza and promoting respect for international law are of critical importance, so if public criticism is the only way to achieve this then public rebuke by the State Department should be justified.

Of course, this may not change Israel’s conduct. But it may still be justified and necessary to go on the record about one’s beliefs as to what’s right and wrong. Meaning, if one believes that Israel is violating humanitarian law and private rebuke is to no avail, there may be value in launching a public report in order to not be seen as condoning conduct that is illegal.

What’s Your View?

So how you feel about this bill comes down to a few factors. How strongly do you believe that Israel is violating humanitarian law ? How much faith do you have in behind the scenes diplomacy? And are you more concerned about making a difference in Israel’s conduct, if even a small one, or in making a general public statement about what you believe to be right and wrong?

Clearly right now a large majority of senators don’t want a potentially critical State Department report. They believe either that post- war investigations will exonerate Israel’s conduct or behind the scenes diplomacy will best serve humanitarian interests. Let’s hope they’re right.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash



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