The World Central Kitchen deaths could kill aid to Ukraine as well as Israel

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: (L-R) U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) listen during a news conference calling for a ceasefire in Gaza outside the U.S. Capitol building on November 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. House Democrats held the news conference alongside rabbis with the activist group Jewish Voices for Peace. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
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President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally spoke on Thursday after Israeli airstrikes killed seven aid workers for the nonprofit World Central Kitchen.

The international fallout from the killings has been swift and shows little signs of slowing down. José Andrés, the celebrity chef who runs World Central Kitchen, accused Israel’s military on Wednesday of targeting “systematically, car by car” the aid workers. Andrés’s elevated public platform as a celebrity chef who moonlights as a beloved humanitarian provider means Washington and Jerusalem will continue to hear from him.

So far, Democrats including Biden have only signaled vague calls for an “investigation” without specifiying what that might entail. One former Pentagon attorney told The Independent that, in their opinion, any such investigation would be “perfunctory” and “performative.”

One former State Department official also said: “There’s no incentive to investigate if the president and the White House themselves have announced that aid is unconditional.”

Biden has received plenty of criticism for his steadfast support for Israel. A small but significant portion of Democratic voters voted “uncommitted” in primary contests — most recently in Wisconsin on Tuesday — because of it.

And the president’s support for Israel and the outcry after the aid workers’ deaths also could undermine one of Biden’s other major priorities for 2024: providing aid for Ukraine.

After the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, Democratic leaders including Biden pushed to couple Ukraine aid in a bill with aid to Israel. Democrats hoped linking the two would allow the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to pass aid to Ukraine, despite the GOP increasingly turning against the country.

The Senate finally passed a foreign aid bill in February — but House Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to take the bill up and the far-right Marjorie Taylor Greene threatened to file a motion to vacate the chair to trigger a removal of Johnson if he passed Ukraine aid.

Of course, Greene pulled the trigger on her motion to vacate, despite Johnson not even passing the Ukraine bill. That gives Democrats considerable leverage to save Johnson. They could effectively force him to pass the Ukraine-Israel aid bill in exchange for not voting to vacate, the same way they did with Kevin McCarthy.

Johnson needs to rely on almost unanimous support from Democrats to pass any legislation, given the razor-thin margins in the House. And herein lies the rub. The House currently has 431 members because of vacancies. That means 287 members would need to vote for the aid package to pass. Sixty-four House Democrats — about a third of the 218 Democrats in total — support a ceasefire in Gaza. That doesn’t count the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who number over 100.

Progressives object to the aid package for a number of reasons. Representative Delia Ramierez of Illinois told me last month she did not support a discharge petition to put the package on the floor without Johnson’s permission because it “has unconditional aid to Israel.” Fellow Squad member Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez similarly told me, “I don't believe in unconditional aid to the Israeli government particularly, especially in this juncture, when there's been a total lack of restraint.”

Indeed, 22 Democrats voted against the most recent minibus spending bill that triggered Greene’s motion to vacate. They also objected to its halting of money to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) included in the spending bill.

That gives Johnson — to say nothing of House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries — much thinner margins to navigate than he even might have had before. Having a vote on the floor to provide aid to Israel and Ukraine would be a massive embarrassment on the global stage now. Many countries would wonder if it meant the United States is shirking its international obligations.

Biden may have been correct to initially couple Ukraine aid with assistance to Israel, given widespread support for Israel in the GOP. But after the World Central Kitchen workers’ deaths, linking the two is a terrible PR move, especially given rising criticisms of Israel coming from within Biden’s own party. Needless to say, the situation has greatly imperiled aid to Ukraine.