It’s not only future U.S. assistance to Ukraine that’s in doubt in Washington. Israel aid is also tied up in the complicated negotiations around President Biden’s national security funding package, and Senate Democrats are signaling there is currently no plan to separate out and vote on Israel aid if the discussions around border security policy changes fail.
“[Senate Majority] Leader Schumer doesn’t want that. President Biden doesn’t want that. We’re not doing Israel only,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii told Semafor. “We’re not doing Ukraine only. These things are tied together whether anyone likes it or not.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. told Semafor that “the goal right now” is to keep all elements of the package together and “there is no discussion about separating the pieces out.”
Complicating matters further, Democrats are increasingly divided over whether to attach conditions to aid as concerns over Israel’s war plans grow, a dispute Schumer acknowledged on Wednesday.
“On conditions, our caucus is discussing it and we’ll continue to look for the best way forward,” he told reporters.
In October, Biden asked for $14 billion in aid for Israel and $61 billion for Ukraine, in addition to billions for border security and countering China. Republicans have insisted that border policy changes are needed to unlock a vote on Ukraine aid, and a bipartisan group in the Senate is currently negotiating potential restrictions on asylum and other potential changes. Democrats also believe tying Ukraine aid to Israel assistance increases the odds of passing the former.
There is broad consensus that, if it were put to a vote on the Senate floor, Israel assistance alone would pass. But Democrats’ insistence that they will not separate out Israel aid from the rest of the package raises questions about the path forward.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said Thursday that he wasn’t sure if there would be a separate, standalone vote on Israel assistance if border talks don’t succeed.
“It’s a serious question. I think the timeliness of that money is more important in Ukraine, but we have to wonder what impact it has on Israel,” he told Semafor.
Further complicating the situation were remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday opposing calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.
“I think when Netanyahu says things like that, it does not help win votes from people who are skeptical about the future of a Palestinian state,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told reporters.
The comments, which drew pushback from the White House, also came as a handful of Democrats call for conditions to be attached to Israel assistance in the national security package.
A resolution from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. that would have required the State Department to report to Congress within 30 days on any human rights violations by Israel was easily defeated earlier this week. However, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. and others are spearheading a separate effort to amend an eventual national security package to add reporting requirements to Israel aid and other foreign assistance. The amendment has over a dozen Democratic cosponsors and Van Hollen told Semafor Thursday he expected more to sign on.
It’s possible that Democrats are only insisting now that Israel aid move with the rest of the national security funding package in order to keep their leverage in the discussions. If Israel aid were to pass alone, Republicans — a growing number of whom oppose Ukraine aid — may see less incentive in moving the rest of the request.
“I think if Israel aid were on the floor alone it would pass,” Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt. told me. “But I think the consensus between Schumer and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell is to put the three of them together … but it’s not because Israel is the weak link.”
Welch also said he doesn’t see Democrats changing their strategy of linking all of the elements.
At the same time, one can’t ignore the growing disquiet within the Democratic Party about the way Israel is conducting its offensive. Biden is reportedly running out of patience with Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister’s comments rejecting out of hand official U.S. policy on a two-state solution — which comes on top of years of tension between him and Democrats across multiple administrations — don’t help matters much.
“I think that there is an understanding of how we move forward post-conflict and that is two states living side by side in peace,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Md. insisted Thursday, reacting to Netanyahu’s comments. “There is no other alternative. So, we recognize that statements are made sometimes for whatever reasons they are made and we don’t deny the challenges we have with the prime minister on this issue, and the politics in Israel. But we think that there will be a new day once Israel is successful in eliminating the threat from Hamas.”
At the end of the day, passing Israel aid will more likely than not hinge on Congress passing the larger bill with border security, Ukraine, and Taiwan all united, because passing Israel aid alone could be interpreted as Democrats giving up on Ukraine. The prospect of a deal that can become law is far from guaranteed: Even if the Senate negotiators reach an agreement on changes to border policy, it will still face an uphill road in the Republican-controlled House.
Room for Disagreement
Some lawmakers won’t even entertain the prospect that the current negotiations could fail, given how critical U.S. aid is to Ukraine’s success on the battlefield against its Russian invaders.
“Ukraine is going to pass,” Cardin told Semafor. “We have no choice.”