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Opinion | Military Aid to Israel Cannot Be Unconditional

BusinessOpinion | Military Aid to Israel Cannot Be Unconditional

The suffering of civilians in Gaza — tens of thousands dead, many of them children; hundreds of thousands homeless, many at risk of starvation — has become more than a growing number of Americans can abide. And yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his ultranationalist allies in government have defied American calls for more restraint and humanitarian help.

The United States commitment to Israel — including $3.8 billion a year in military aid, the largest outlay of American foreign aid to any one country in the world — is a reflection of the exceptionally close and enduring relationship between the two countries. A bond of trust, however, must prevail between donors and recipients of lethal arms from the United States, which supplies arms according to formal conditions that reflect American values and the obligations of international law.

Mr. Netanyahu and the hard-liners in his government have broken that bond, and until it is restored, America cannot continue, as it has, to supply Israel with the arms it has been using in its war against Hamas.

The question is not whether Israel has the right to defend itself against an enemy sworn to its destruction. It does. The Hamas attack of Oct. 7 was an atrocity no nation could leave unanswered, and by hiding behind civilian fronts, Hamas violates international law and bears a major share of responsibility for the suffering inflicted on the people in whose name it purports to act. In the immediate aftermath of that attack, President Biden rushed to demonstrate America’s full sympathy and support in Israel’s agony. That was the right thing to do.

It is also not a question whether the United States should continue to help Israel defend itself. America’s commitments to Israel’s defense are long term, substantial, mutually beneficial and essential. No president or Congress should deny the only state on earth with a Jewish majority the means to ensure its survival. Nor should Americans ever lose sight of the threat that Hamas, a terrorist organization, poses to the security of the region and to any hope of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

But that does not mean the president should allow Mr. Netanyahu to keep playing his cynical double games. The Israeli leader is fighting for his political survival against growing anger from his electorate. He knows that, should he leave office, he will risk going on trial for serious charges of corruption. He has, until recently, resisted diplomatic efforts for a cease-fire that might have led to a release of hostages still in the custody of Hamas. He has used American armaments to go after Hamas but has been deaf to repeated demands from Mr. Biden and his national security team to do more to protect civilians in Gaza from being harmed by those armaments. Even worse, Mr. Netanyahu has turned defiance of America’s leadership into a political tool, indulging and encouraging the hard-liners in his cabinet, who pledge to reoccupy Gaza and reject any notion of a Palestinian state — exactly the opposite of U.S. policy.

Thanks in part to the bombs and other heavy weapons supplied by the United States, the Israeli military now faces little armed resistance in most of Gaza. But Mr. Netanyahu has ignored his obligations to provide food and medicine to the civilian population in the territory that Israel now controls. In fact, Israel has made it difficult for anyone else to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza. The United States has had to take extraordinary steps, including airdrops and building a pier, to overcome Israeli obstacles to providing humanitarian aid. Last week’s attack on a World Central Kitchen convoy in Gaza, which killed seven aid workers and which Israel acknowledged was a mistake, underscores the enormous danger facing the international aid agencies that are stepping in to help.

This cannot continue.

Israel recently announced a pullback of troops from southern Gaza. But this is neither a formal cease-fire nor an end to the war, and it is incumbent on the Biden administration to persevere in its efforts to help end the fighting, free the hostages and protect Palestinian civilians.

A growing number of senators, led by Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, have been urging Mr. Biden to consider pausing military transfers to Israel, which the executive branch can do without congressional approval. They were right to push for this action.

Last week, Representative Nancy Pelosi was among 40 House Democrats to sign a letter to the president and the secretary of state urging them to ensure that military assistance to Israel is in compliance with U.S. and international law. The mechanism to do that is already in place. In February, Mr. Biden signed a national security memorandum (NSM-20) that directed the secretary of state to obtain “credible and reliable” written assurances from recipients of American weapons that those weapons would be used in accordance with international law and that recipients would not impede the delivery of American assistance. Failure to fulfill those measures could lead to suspension of further arms transfers.

NSM-20 did not break ground. Many of its requirements are already law under the Foreign Assistance Act and other measures, and they apply to armaments supplied to other countries, including Ukraine. NSM-20 specifically excludes air defense systems and others used for strictly defensive purposes, but that still leaves many offensive weapons whose delivery the United States could pause. But NSM-20 is notable. It affirms the president’s authority to use military aid as a lever in ensuring the nation’s weapons are used responsibly.

The administration has tried many forms of pressure and admonition, including public statements, reported expressions of frustration and U.N. Security Council resolutions. None of them, so far, have proved effective with Mr. Netanyahu. Military aid is the one lever Mr. Biden has been reluctant to use, but it is a significant one he has at his disposal — perhaps the last one — to persuade Israel to open the way for urgent assistance to Gaza.

Pausing the flow of weapons to Israel would not be an easy step for Mr. Biden to take; his devotion and commitment to the Jewish state go back decades. But the war in Gaza has taken an enormous toll in human lives, with a cease-fire still out of reach and many hostages still held captive. The eroding international support for its military campaign has made Israel more insecure. Confronted with that suffering, the United States cannot remain beholden to an Israeli leader fixated on his own survival and the approval of the zealots he harbors.

The United States has had Israel’s back, diplomatically and militarily, through decades of wars and crises. Alliances are not one-way relationships, and most Israelis, including Israel’s senior military commanders, are aware of that. Yet Mr. Netanyahu has turned his back on America and its entreaties, creating a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations when Israel’s security, and the stability of the entire region, is at stake.

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