WASHINGTON ― The Senate on Tuesday roundly rejected a proposal requiring the State Department to produce a human rights report on Israel’s policies, including its controversial U.S.-backed offensive in Gaza ― the highest-profile response by lawmakers so far to mounting public pressure for a change in Washington’s approach in the Middle East.

A large bipartisan majority voted to table the measure, 72-11. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the bill’s author, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and nine progressive Democrats joined in its defense, including Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Peter Welch (Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.).

Sanders forced senators to go on the record with their views on Israel’s conduct by using an often-overlooked provision (502B) of U.S. law that allows Congress to ask the State Department to analyze the human rights record of any country receiving U.S. aid.

Although it had been expected to fail due to bipartisan opposition, supporters of the measure hoped it would spur debate about billions of dollars in unconditional assistance for Israel as Palestinians continue to face daily bombings and the threat of famine. Sanders said that the legislation did not remove “a nickel” of the billions of dollars’ worth of military aid the U.S. sends Israel, calling it a “modest, commonsense proposal” that would simply open an inquiry into potential human rights abuses.

“It is necessary because of the scale of destruction in Gaza, the indiscriminate nature of the military campaign, the humanitarian catastrophe that is now occurring and the limits on humanitarian access,” Sanders said in a speech on the Senate floor, and because of “the extensive use of U.S. weapons in attacks that have killed thousands of civilians ― much of the destruction taking place in Gaza has been done with U.S. weapons.”

Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., visited the Senate shortly before the vote and met with leading senators, a congressional aide told HuffPost, which first reported the development.

Many Democrats who share Sanders’ concerns about the hugely damaging toll of the Gaza campaign and who say Israel must do more to protect civilians there argued his bill was excessive because if it passed and the State Department failed to provide a report within 30 days, American aid would have to be cut off.

“Hamas began this conflict with a horrifying terrorist attack on October 7 and continues to hold hostages, but that does not mean we can ignore the tragic suffering of Palestinian civilians,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “I will continue raising these issues directly with Israeli officials and the Biden administration. I do not, however, believe that risking the suspension of all U.S. assistance or publicly rebuking Israel in a way that could embolden its enemies will address these concerns.”

Other Democratic senators said they supported other legislative ways to reshape U.S. policy toward Israel, including proposals requiring U.S. aid to be used in line with international law and ensuring transparency about U.S. arms shipments to Israel. Those proposals, introduced by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), hinge on the passage of a broader national security spending bill that seems stuck as Republicans continue to insist that the Biden administration first agree to impose sharp limits on immigration to the U.S. and tougher border policies. Even if the Senate somehow strikes a deal, its path in the GOP-controlled House is even more dubious.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the resolution means “much more than just requesting information.”

“Its passage would be a gift to Hamas, a gift to Iran, [and] it would show a division between Israel and the U.S. … If we pass this, the process is triggered for the U.S. to cut off aid,” he said.

Most Republicans dismissed Sanders’ resolution out of hand on Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it “little more than performative left-wing politics” that would tie “the hands of a close ally locked in a necessary battle against savage terrorists.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) defended Israel’s actions, pinning the blame for the violence on Hamas, the armed Palestinian group whose Oct. 7 attack in Israel killed 1,200 people. Since Israel’s retaliatory operation began, it has killed more than 24,000 people in the Gaza Strip, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

“I can assure you the [Israeli Defense Forces] is spending more time trying to protect innocent Palestinians than Hamas,” Graham said on the Senate floor. “Hamas is doing everything they can to expose civilians to military action, and Israel is trying in a reasonable way to lessen the exposure.”

Activists said the act of forcing a high-profile, live-streamed conversation in the Senate was worthwhile and notable on its own terms.

“Given the makeup of Congress, this was a foregone conclusion. I don’t think that takes away from the shift,” said Madeleine Cereghino of Americans for Peace Now, a progressive Zionist group. ”The idea of putting into question the way our assistance is being used has really been painted historically as very anti-Israel, pro-cutting aid.”

Saying intensely pro-Israel figures have conflated the idea of conditions on aid for Israel with cutting aid to it ― neither of which the Sanders resolution would have done ― Cereghino spoke of challenging a “taboo on the Hill.”

Andrew O’Neill of the liberal group Indivisible praised senators “who lent their support to this resolution… in spite of enormous political pressure.”

“The 502B process had never been used before, and now that tool is on the table,” O’Neill continued in a statement. “These are lonely votes, but votes that can be the start of something bigger.”

Sanders and advocacy groups supportive of his effort expect to continue raising the idea of the State Department report.

“Frankly, if you believe Israel’s actions are not in violation of any human rights conditions, you should welcome this report because it would exonerate Israel,” Cereghino said.

Frustration with the war in Gaza is mounting in the U.S., including in the White House, which has supported Israel’s military actions so far. President Joe Biden last month warned that Israel is starting to lose support around the world due to what he said was “the indiscriminate bombing” by Israel in Gaza.


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