The theme of the J Street conference was conditioning aid to Israel, but where’s the action?

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A major theme has emerged at this year’s annual J Street conference: conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish nonprofit, set the tone on the first day of the conference. “Our aid is not intended to be a blank check,” he declared. At a press conference the next day, he revealed that the group would push for legislation that regulates how aid money is used by Israel.

The first Democratic presidential candidate to be interviewed at the event was Senator Amy Klobuchar. Former Obama administration officials Ben Rhodes and Tommy Vietor asked the Minnesota centrist whether she would leverage aid money in an effort to pressure Israel. “I think we are at this moment and time where it is not a good idea to negotiate these things right now,” she responded before moving the subject to a broader discussion about President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Klobuchar was the only candidate who seemingly dodged the question. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet said he would have to weigh the validity of such moves. Julian Castro said he was prepared to condition aid to Israel in order to stop a potential annexation of the West Bank. “My hope is that we can work like crazy so we don’t get to that point,” said Castro, “I would not take it off the table. I want to focus on what we can do hopefully with a new government, and a new president.”

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg doubled down on his earlier embrace of the same annexation point, but this time he seemed to imply that he might be open to conditioning aid over settlement expansion as well. “We need to make sure that any such cooperation and funding is going to things that are compatible with U.S. objectives and U.S. law,” he said, “It is a reminder that we need to have the visibility to know whether U.S. funds are being used in a way that are not compatible with U.S. policy.”

The most forceful endorsement of such policies came from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who also received the loudest cheers from the audience.) Not only did he endorse the idea of conditioning aid, he also indicated that some of the aid should immediately go towards Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. “My solution is to say to Israel: you get $3.8 billion every year, if you want military aid you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza, in fact I think it is fair to say that some of that should go right now into humanitarian aid,” said Sanders.

Last week presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she’d be open to conditioning aid over the issue of settlement expansion. “Right now, Netanyahu says he is going to take Israel in a direction of increasing settlements, [but] that does not move us in the direction of a two-state solution. It is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction, then everything is on the table…Everything is on the table.”

J Street has been weighing the decision to support such proposals for months now. “If the United States Congress wants to put into place legislation that authorizes the aid, ‘none of the funds in this section shall be used for XYZ’ – that seems to be a very fair thing to say,” Ben-Ami told The Forward. “The United States should not want to see its taxpayer dollars used in any way for the support of activities that implement a decision to annex” the West Bank.”

Despite these sentiments, J Street has yet to come out in support of H.R.2407, a bill that was introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) in April. The legislation would amend the Foreign Assistance Act to assure that none of the aid given to Israel (or any other country) could be used to detain children. According to a July Intercept piece on the legislation, the group is apprehensive about supporting such a measure. “Advocates for the bill have heard from congressional staffers that J Street is skeptical about using the Leahy Law to bar aid because, in J Street’s eyes, the law should be applied to only the most extreme human rights violations like mass sexual violence, massacres, or ethnic cleansing,” reported Alex Kane and Ryan Grim.

A previous version of McCollum’s bill was introduced in 2017, but died at the end of that congressional session. The current bill has just 22 co-sponsors and still lacks a companion piece of legislation in the Senate despite the fact that McCollum’s office have asked Senators like Warren and Sanders to introduce one.

The overarching theme of the conference lines up with a wider shift that seems to be happening throughout the country. A recent report from the progressive think tank Data for Progress shows that 46% of voters support conditioning aid to Israel to further human rights in the region. The number is 65% for Democratic voters. An October 25 report from the centrist Center for American Progress (CAP) ended up with even higher numbers: 56% of voters say they’d condition aid if the Israeli government continues to expand settlements or ends up annexing the West Bank. That number goes up to 71% when applied to Democratic voters and 55% for independents.

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