Senators say ‘BFD’ presidential memo may lead to changes on Israeli aid. The White House has a different story

Some Democratic senators celebrated this weekend after President Joe Biden released what they’re calling a “historic” memo on foreign aid requirements, hailing it as a step towards potentially conditioning military aid to Israel.

But despite those celebrations, the White House denied that it would have an impact on billions of dollars of military aid slated for the longtime US ally.

The Biden administration released a memorandum on Thursday evening describing conditions countries must meet to receive aid from the United States. The memo outlines existing laws stating that countries receiving US aid must follow humanitarian guidelines, such as providing “credible and reliable written assurances” that they are complying with international law and humanitarian standards.

The memo comes at a time of increased scrutiny of military aid to Israel, as the longtime US ally is poised to launch an offensive into the southern city of Rafah, where half of Gaza’s pre-war population is now sheltering from the war. Hundreds of thousands are living in tent encampments and overcrowded UN shelters in the city, and aid agencies have warned of a “bloodbath” if it goes ahead. Mr Biden issued a rare public criticism of the plan, saying it should not take place without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.

“As Joe Biden would say, this is a BFD,” Senator Chris Van Hollen said of the memo on X. The Maryland Democrat is one of only a handful of Senators who support a ceasefire in Gaza.

When asked by The Independent if he believes this memo could have practical implications for US aid to Israel in the near future, Senator Peter Welch of Vermont said, “I do.” He has also called for an indefinite ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also praised the memo as “historic” to The Independent.

“I’ve been working with the @WhiteHouse & Senators led by @ChrisVanHollen to improve protection of civilians & hold the Israeli government accountable for upholding international law,” Ms Warren also said on X, quote-tweeting a post about the President’s memo. “U.S. military aid cannot be a blank check for Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing government to kill tens of thousands of Palestinians.”

But the memo may not be as consequential as some Senators say. The White House says the memo contains no changes to standards for aid.

“There are no new standards in this memo,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday. “We are not imposing new standards for military aid.”

“Instead, we are spelling out publicly the existing standards by international law, including the law of armed conflict,” Ms Jean-Pierre continued.

The memo dropped the same night that Mr Biden said in a press conference that Israel’s military operations in Gaza have been “over the top.”

Many of these pre-existing foreign aid standards come from the Leahy Law — which refers to two statutory provisions and is named after former senator Patrick Leahy. It prevents the federal government from using funds to assist foreign governments when there is credible information they have committed “gross violations of human rights.”

The memo was released just a little over two weeks after the International Criminal Court found it was “plausible” that Israel was committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza.

It comes as 19 senators, led by Mr Van Hollen, banded together in a call for an amendment to a bill that would provide aid to Ukraine, Israel and allies in the Indo-Pacific.

“Because we’ve now accomplished our goal in law, we will not offer that amendment,” Mr Van Hollen told The Independent when asked about the memo.

Several Senate Democrats have praised the memo.

Mr Welch told The Independent the memo is “a demonstration Congress is watching” and marks a “significant change in sentiment.”

When asked how the memo could be practically enforced in the case of Israel, Senator Chris Murphy — one of the original negotiators of the bipartisan immigration bill — wasn’t able to answer.

“It’s an important question, and I should probably hear from the administration on how they plan to implement the letter before I answer that publicly,” Mr Murphy, one of the 19 Democrats who initially proposed the amendment, told The Independent on Friday evening.

But White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters the White House briefed Israelis on the foreign aid requirements reiterated in the memo.

“[The Israelis] reiterated their willingness to provide these types of assurances,” she said.

Meanwhile, Israel’s military operations in Gaza have killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The four-month-long offensive began after Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel on 7 October. Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped some 250 people and took them back to Gaza.

But with Ms Jean-Pierre’s note that this memo includes no new standards and a lack of clarity around how it will be enforced, some are doubtful of its true impact on aid to Israel.

“It does not apply to Israel because, according to the [Biden] administration, Israel is acting consistent with US policy,” Senator Bernie Sanders told The Independent when asked about the memo.

On Sunday, Mr Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel prepares a military operation in Rafah in Gaza. A White House readout said that Mr Biden cautioned “that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there.”

US support for Israel’s war in Gaza has caused a split within the Democratic Party between more traditional Democrats who support Israel and more progressive Democrats who have vocally criticised both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Biden.