A group of 19 predominantly Democratic lawmakers is calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to provide answers about why he bypassed Congress last month to approve arms sales to Israel.
“It is essential for Congress to be able to conduct oversight of these arms transfers and determine whether they are consistent with humanitarian principles and U.S. law, and whether they advance or harm U.S. national security,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter dated Friday and obtained by CNN.
The top US diplomat made two emergency determinations in December to immediately approve the transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment to Israel. The first was transmitted to Congress in early December for more than 13,000 tanks shells; the second, in late December for “155mm ancillary items including fuzes, charges, and primers that make 155mm shells functional.”
The emergency determinations meant the administration was able to bypass the standard 20-day period that congressional committees are typically afforded to review such sales.
The letter to Blinken comes amid growing anger and calls by progressive lawmakers – several of whom signed on to the letter– to enact conditions on military aid to Israel as the humanitarian toll of the offensive in Gaza continues to mount. More than 26,000 people have been killed since the start of the offensive in October, the Hamas-controlled health ministry said, and hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, according to the UN.
The administration’s staunch support for Israel’s war is becoming a serious political problem for President Joe Biden in an election year with many progressive Democrats, Muslim and younger voters deeply unhappy about how the president is handling the war.
The letter was signed by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, and Peter Welch, and Democratic Reps. James McGovern, Earl Blumenauer, Joaquin Castro, Judy Chu, Raúl M. Grijalva, Pramila Jayapal, Barbara Lee, Betty McCollum, Chellie Pingree, Mark Pocan, Delia Ramirez, Jan Schakowsky, Jill Tokuda, Maxine Waters, and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
In their letter, the lawmakers noted the rarity of administrations using emergency declarations to immediately approve arms sales without congressional approval. They also referenced the standards under US policies, such as the Leahy Law, to not provide military assistance to security forces credibly accused of gross human rights violations.
“Use of a national emergency waiver does not exempt the U.S. government from assessing whether arms sales are consistent with” those standards, they wrote.
The lawmakers called on the State Department to provide answers to a series of questions “in order to assess whether these transfers are consistent with international humanitarian law.” The list includes questions about how the government determined “that an emergency existed to necessitate both immediate transfers to Israel,” why the administration believes “Israel needs and will use 155mm shells in their military campaign,” and any mitigation efforts put in place to curb civilian casualties.
They also asked whether the government has “conducted any Leahy Law vetting of Israeli forces since October 7” and if there were “any findings of credible information that forces committed gross violations of human rights.”
The lawmakers requested the answers by February 9.
“We appreciate that your administration has repeatedly urged the Israeli government to take additional steps to reduce civilian casualties. However, we are concerned that these transfers and the administration’s evasion of congressional oversight may be inconsistent with broader U.S. foreign policy goals,” read the letter.
“We are also troubled by the decision to provide equipment for 155mm shells, which over 30 U.S.-based civil society organizations warned poses ‘a grave risk to civilians’ and are ‘inherently indiscriminate’ when used in densely populated areas like Gaza,” the lawmakers wrote. “In addition to the civilian harm risks inherent to the nature of these weapons, we are concerned that the weapons the U.S. provides could be used in a manner that violates of U.S. policy and international law.”
State Department spokesperson Matt Miller on Tuesday pushed back on the idea that the Department bypassed Congress, saying it was “following the statute that Congress passed.” He also said the determinations were made “in consultation with leading members of Congress.”
“We always welcome engagement with Congress and we will engage with them on this question, as we always do. I would say that the process that the secretary followed and the process that we follow here at the State Department is the process that the law actually prescribed,” Miller said at a State Department briefing.
Asked about the first emergency determination in early December, Blinken said that “when it comes to the weapons that we transfer, the rules that go along with them, those rules apply to Israel as they do to any other country, including the way they’re used and the need, the imperative of respecting international humanitarian law.”
“We want to make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against Hamas,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” at the time. “A small portion of what has been requested is going through on an emergency basis, that is moving quickly so that Israel can have what it needs in hand. But virtually everything else is going through the regular order, through Congress. It’s very important that Congress’s voice be heard in this.”
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