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What Congress Can Do To Help Israel
Three steps that Capitol Hill can take to support the Biden administration's policy.
In response to last week’s horrific Hamas attack, the Biden administration backed Israel in word and deed. President Biden’s Israel visit and speeches, along with deployment of two U.S. aircraft carriers, will hopefully not only deter Iran and Hezbollah but also give Israel’s political leadership confidence to proceed deliberately rather than rashly in responding to Hamas’ murderous assault.
But, as the president himself noted in Tel Aviv, Congress has a role to play as well. Last Friday, the president asked Congress for a $100 billion foreign aid package—including more than $14 billion for Israel. Here’s what we hope Congress will do in response.
First, in addition to passing the administration’s requested supplemental funding for Israel and Ukraine, Congress should lift the spending limits on various military assistance authorities to expedite weapons transfers to Israel—including removing a limit on presidential drawdown authority for Israel, currently capped at $100 million, which allows for “speedy delivery” of weapons in U.S. stocks.
Removing this limit would allow Israel to access articles compatible with Israeli platforms in the U.S. War Reserve Stockpile in Israel. Administrations have typically resisted these authorities in fear of exhausting U.S. supplies and funding, but if Israel is faced with a two-front war it can’t fight on its own, the United States may have to fight it for them. And Iran’s proxies have promised that American involvement will trigger attacks on Americans globally.
Second, there could be undue delays between approving weapons transfers for Israel and then actually shipping the gear. Currently, there are statutory notification periods for Congress on U.S.-funded military assistance, and once approved any equipment the U.S. government pays for must travel on U.S. cargo carriers—possibly making these transfers more expensive and longer.
Consequently, Congress should allow the president to waive typical congressional notification periods on Foreign Military Financing and missile defense assistance to get this equipment in Israel’s hands as quickly as possible. Congress should likewise waive Cargo Preference Act requirements to expedite shipping for a limited time.
Third, Congress should exercise its bully pulpit in whatever way possible to free hostages held in Gaza. One of those hostages is a personal friend, Hersh Goldberg Polin, a twenty-three-year-old Berkeley-born Israeli-American who was dragged from the music festival to Gaza and apparently lost his hand while trying to throw Hamas grenades away from the crowd he was defending. Hersh visited the Capitol in 2015 with his family, and he typifies the young Israelis held hostage in Gaza today.
Members of Congress can write letters or make calls independently, but bipartisan resolutions on the House and Senate floors that make clear the U.S. government is speaking with one voice would be far more effective and encourage partners like Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt to help release hostages.
Finally, to take any of these actions, Congress must immediately elect or temporarily empower a House Speaker, one who can work across the aisle on Israel policy. With no one controlling the floor, the House cannot move any legislative measures. Even if measures could get a vote, ensuring resolutions on Israel receive more than 400 votes—the ultimate statement of support—takes time, leadership, and willingness to reach compromise on questions such as whether to reference a “two-state solution.” The Gaza conflict is not pausing for inter-party litigation. Time is of the essence.
The October 7 terrorist atrocity was the largest killing of Jews since the Holocaust. What’s different now is that a Jewish state exists and can defend itself, with accompanying rights and responsibilities. Congress can play a major role in that effort.
Daniel Silverberg is a managing director at Capstone, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and former national security advisor to Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Kirsten Fontenrose is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the former Senior Director for Gulf Affairs on the U.S. National Security Council under the Trump administration.