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Sen. Bernie Sanders says aid to Israel should be conditional, citing the toll on Gaza

Sen. Bernie Sanders, pictured at a committee hearing last month, joined Republican senators in blocking aid to Israel and Ukraine. He tells NPR why he thinks support for Israel's military should have strings attached.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, pictured at a committee hearing last month, joined Republican senators in blocking aid to Israel and Ukraine. He tells NPR why he thinks support for Israel's military should have strings attached.

Updated December 7, 2023 at 10:44 AM ET

The Senate voted 49 to 51 on Wednesday not to advance a bill that would provide billions of dollars to Ukraine and Israel, aid the White House says is essential for safeguarding democracy across the globe.

Republicans made good on their threat to block consideration of the bill unless it included their preferred border security and immigration measures. They were joined by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — and one of Congress' most prominent progressives.

Sanders voted no for a different reason, as he later explained in a statement: "I do not believe that we should give the right-wing extremist Netanyahu government an additional $10.1 billion dollars with no strings attached to continue their inhumane war against the Palestinian people."

In floor remarks and a letter to Democrats earlier this week, Sanders said he agreed with many of the bill's provisions, including its support for humanitarian aid and Ukraine's right to defend itself.

But he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's response to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, noting that it has killed some 16,000 Palestinians and displaced another 1.8 million from their homes in Gaza. He also pointed to Israeli settler violence and a growing Palestinian death toll in the West Bank.

"[Israel has] the right to go to war against Hamas, who committed an atrocious invasion of their country," Sanders told NPR's Morning Edition before Wednesday's vote. "But they do not have the right to go to war against the Palestinian people."

Sanders told Morning Edition's Michel Martin that he believes the only way the U.S. can tell Netanyahu that "his military tactics are unacceptable" is to not give him a blank check for the $10 billion that President Biden's security package seeks.

He does support giving Israel $4 billion to replenish its Iron Dome, a decade-old network of radar detectors and missile launchers that intercepts incoming rockets.

But he said further U.S. aid to Israel should come with conditions, adding that "we cannot allow Israeli settlers to kill Palestinians on the West Bank" and "have got to also make it clear that the people of Gaza have a right to return and rebuild their homes."

"And maybe most importantly, we need a commitment from the Netanyahu government that there will be a two-state solution, that the Palestinians in the area have a right to their own homeland, to live with security and dignity," Sanders said.

Unlike some of his fellow progressives, Sanders has not called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. He told NPR that would be unrealistic, given Hamas' stated goal of destroying Israel.

He says the changes needed in the region — now in its fifth war in 15 years — can only happen under new leadership in Gaza. While Israel aims to remove Hamas from power, it remains unclear who would step in to govern the territory.

"You need new Palestinian leadership which pays attention to the needs of the Palestinian people and understands that Israel has a right to exist in a two-state situation," Sanders said. "Not Hamas."

The clock is ticking to pass a package before Christmas break

The question of financial support for the militaries of Ukraine and Israel has both dominated and divided Capitol Hill in recent months.

In October, Biden asked Congress for nearly $106 billion in funding for Israel, Ukraine, countering China and border security.

The package included some $14 billion for Israel and more than $61 billion for Ukraine, which the Biden administration has repeatedly warned is running out of money to defend itself from Russia.

House Republicans are increasingly opposed to sending more aid to Ukraine, though they did approve a $14.5 billion military aid package for Israel (funded by cuts to the IRS) last month. The Democratic-controlled Senate said it would reject it, since it didn't include money for Ukraine, humanitarian aid in Gaza and other Biden administration priorities.

Some Democrats have also raised questions about aid to Israel. A majority of Senate Democrats — as well as Sanders and independent Maine Sen. Angus King — wrote Biden a letter last month asking him to defend his request for aid and ensure that Israel will use U.S. military assistance in keeping with international law.

After Wednesday's failed vote, Biden accused Republicansof "playing chicken" with the package by demanding "partisan" border policies, but also indicated he would be open to making compromises in order to get the bill passed.

A bipartisan negotiating group working border policy in the Senate has been unable to overcome disagreements around asylum policy and other border security issues. Republicans have warned that they will not agree to a broader security bill without resolving the border issue.

The president said Congress must approve funding for Ukraine before it goes on holiday recess late next week, or else it will be giving Russian president Vladimir Putin a gift.

Sanders agrees, adding that he expected that Congress would need to go back to the drawing board and hopes it can "do the best that we can ... as soon as we can."

"I do think that it's absolutely imperative, that we need a spending bill right now, which makes it clear to Putin that the United States and the rest of the democratic world are supportive of Ukraine and other democracies," Sanders said. "And I think humanitarian aid for Gaza and other parts of the world are desperately needed."

Sanders condemns bigotry at home, including in his own state

Sanders also weighed in on a recent incident in his home state, in which a man shot three college students of Palestinian descent as they walked down the street in Burlington, speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs.

All three survived, though one could face permanent paralysis in his legs due to a bullet lodged in his spine. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime.

Sanders said the attack took place a mile from where he lives, calling it "beyond belief and ... unspeakable." He described the victims as "really bright, lovely young men" and said he had spoken to one of them recently.

And he alluded to the broader context, in which reports of antisemitic, Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian incidents have skyrocketed in the wake of Oct. 7.

"That adds to all of the stress and ugliness that we're seeing taking place today," he said. "It is a tough time for our country, to say the least."

Sanders said in a democratic society, people have the right to disagree and participate in the political process. But they cannot, he said, translate their political views "into hatred of an entire people."

"This country has gone through hundreds of years of bigotry and hatred," he added. "We're trying to climb our way out of it. Let's not recede into tribalism and hatred just because of somebody's religion."

The broadcast interview was produced by Milton Guevara, Reena Advani and Julie Depenbrock.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.