Senator: White House not seeking conditions on military aid to Israel, despite earlier Biden comment

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WASHINGTON (AP) — National security adviser Jake Sullivan told lawmakers this week that the White House is not seeking to place conditions on U.S. military assistance to Israel, days after President Joe Biden signaled openness to the notion that was being pushed by some Democrats as the civilian death toll in Gaza from Israel's war against Hamas climbed.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who was among the senators who met privately with Sullivan on Tuesday, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Sullivan "made it clear that the White House is not asking for any conditionality in aid. So I want to leave that very clear.” A second person directly familiar with the meeting confirmed the account.

Sullivan met with about a dozen Democratic senators to discuss their questions about how the administration would ensure that any U.S. weapons provided to Israel are used in accord with U.S. law. The meeting was held via a teleconference in which Sullivan was at the White House and senators were in a classified room on Capitol Hill. It came as some progressive lawmakers concerned about the civilian toll have suggested that the U.S. place conditions on the types of military assistance and how it could be used by Israeli forces against Hamas targets.

Last week, Biden told reporters that conditioning military aid to Israel was a “worthwhile thought." But he suggested that had he done so earlier, it would have been more difficult to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Van Hollen, who has been one of the most vocal senators raising concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, also noted that Biden has been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in private, noting to him the rising humanitarian concerns among lawmakers who would otherwise be allies of Israel.

“The fact is that the president — in his conversations with the prime minister — has pointed to the fact that lots of friends of Israel on Capitol Hill are very concerned about the very high, unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties and the lack of more cooperation on the provision of humanitarian aid," Van Hollen said. "So our concerns have been communicated and useful, I think, to the president.”

Van Hollen, D-Md., had spearheaded a letter signed by a majority of Senate Democrats earlier this month asking the administration how it would ensure Israel’s use of weaponry complied with American law.

He and two other senators — Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. — raised the issue again in a new statement Wednesday after their meeting with the White House, pointing to signals from the Netanyahu government that it intends to spread its ground offensive from north to south Gaza when the current cease-fire ends.

The White House had showed signs of edging away from Biden’s comment on possibly conditioning future Israel military aid earlier this week. Asked directly on Monday if Biden was considering conditioning aid, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby appeared to hedge.

“What he also said, right after acknowledging that it was ‘a worthwhile thought,’ was that the approach he has chosen to take so far has produced results and outcomes,” Kirby said.

He added: “The approach that we’re taking with Israel and, quite frankly, with our partners in the region is working. It’s getting aid in to people that need it. It’s getting a pause in the fighting. It’s getting hostages out. It’s getting Americans out.”

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AP writers Zeke Miller, Aamer Madhani and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report.