Congress and Biden Split on Support for Israel

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

As the executive and legislative argue over aid packages, an article in our special issue looks back at past responses to an Israel-Hamas conflict.

 With growing concerns over conditions on the ground in Gaza, members of the United States Congress are pushing the Biden administration to halt its continued aid to Israel. Tel Aviv’s assault on the strip, a response to Hamas’s horrific attack on October 7, has already taken the lives of at least 22,000 civilians. Last week, the State Department announced it would bypass Congressional approval to sell nearly $150 million in military equipment to Israel, the second such instance in less than a month. 

Despite the rising protests from lawmakers, the administration has voiced its staunch belief thatit is vital to U.S. national interests to ensure Israel is able to defend itself against the threats it faces.” Earlier this week, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) issued a statement arguing that “Congress must reject that funding,” referring to an even larger aid package proposed by Biden that is currently under consideration. 

Frustrations may be simmering in the current Congress, but the legislative body has a long history of backing Israel. Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco and senior policy analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, examines the congressional reaction to a previous Israeli offensive into Gaza. His article, featured in Middle East Policy’s special issue, The Gaza War, shows that the House and Senate leadership were strongly supportive of the 2008-09 operation, known as Cast Lead. 

A three-week campaign launched after Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel in response to an IDF raid in central Gaza, the operation would take the lives of hundreds of civilians before its end. But even with continued reports of such devastation, Zunes writes, “the U.S. Congress, under the leadership of the Democratic Party, overwhelmingly defended the Israeli offensive.” 

Their support began before the war did, when, six months prior, 77 senators and 268 representatives sent letters to President George Bush defending airstrikes on Gaza and urging the administration to block UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that criticized Israel. 

Resolutions from both chambers then rejected the findings of large-scale civilian death tolls from international human-rights organizations, and asserted that “the Israeli armed forces bore no responsibility for the large and growing numbers of civilian casualties,” Zunes notes. They were “widely interpreted as rebukes to the international human-rights community and the United Nations.” 

This arena of disagreement, between NGOs ringing alarms over violations and Congress’s unconditional backing of Israel, continued through the conflict. Amnesty International raised concerns with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the humanitarian situation, but Congressional leadership stood firm. House Majority Leader Hoyer claimed, “Israel is acting in clear self-defense” and has “an unequivocal right” to continue its assault. 

Most notably, Congress jumped to discredit the investigation conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, led by prominent South African jurist Richard Goldstone. Its report concluded that war crimes were committed by both sides and a case should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Citing numerous concerns, the House passed a resolution condemning the report as biased against Israel.  

Ironically, Zunes writes, Goldstone, an opponent of apartheid and prosecutor in the war-crimes tribunals in Rwanda, was “only accused of bias when his investigation reveals evidence of war crimes by a U.S. ally.” But the House resolution “was unwavering in its attack against Goldstone and his mission.” 

Such opposition played a role in perpetuating a “culture of impunity and lack of accountability” that the report laid out, asserts Zunes.  

“The primary motivation for the resolution appears to have been to prevent the precedent of an impartial investigation into violations of international humanitarian law resulting in the prosecution of war criminals before the International Criminal Court… the goal of Congress appears to be to protect war criminals from prosecution.” 

He concludes, “indeed, it may be a means of preventing the kind of precedent that could serve as a deterrent to subsequent violations of international humanitarian law by the United States.” 

 Among the major takeaways readers can find in Stephen Zunes’s Middle East Policy article, “The Gaza War, Congress, and International Humanitarian Law: 

  • Despite domestic and international outrage at Israel’s 2008-09 assault on the Gaza Strip, the US Congress was a staunch defender of Israel and the offensive. 
    • Letters were sent from both the House and Senate to President George Bush urging the administration to block UNSC resolutions that were critical of Israel. 
    • Statements from leadership, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, defended Israel’s “right to self-defense.” 
    • Months before the operation, the body voted to send 1,000 sophisticated missiles to Israel. 
  • Calls for a ceasefire were conditioned on preventing Hamas “from retaining or rebuilding the capability to launch rockets and mortars against Israel,” contradicting an international resolution from the UNSC. 
  • Congress seemed to advance a reinterpretation of what constitutes a “human shield” that would deflect blame for civilian casualties from the invading force to the defensive. 
    • Resolutions from both bodies placed the blame for civilian deaths on the Palestinian side. 
  • One-third of the Senate acted to discredit the Goldstone Commission Report: 
    • A UN fact-finding investigation that uncovered war crimes committed by both sides, the House passed a resolution vehemently condemning it as biased against Israel. 
    • The report’s principal author, Richard Goldstone, is Jewish and was a leading opponent of apartheid in South Africa, becoming Nelson Mandela’s first appointee to the country’s post-apartheid Supreme Court. 
  • Zunes argues that the precedent set by Congress’s response may provide “a blank check” for forces to commit war crimes and avoid facing prosecution. 

You can read The Gaza War, Congress, and International Humanitarian Law” by Stephen Zunes in the special Gaza War issue of Middle East Policy. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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