President Joe Biden issued an executive memorandum Thursday night stipulating human rights conditions on all U.S. military aid after weeks of pressure from Senate Democrats concerned about Israel’s reported violations in Gaza.
But the White House said Friday it does not expect Biden’s executive action to result in the suspension of military aid to Israel. The executive action reiterates existing U.S. human rights laws governing arms transfers.
“There are no new standards in this memo,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a Friday press conference. “Instead, we are spelling out publicly the existing standards by the international law, including the law of armed conflict.”
The executive memorandum requires any military aid recipient, including Israel and Ukraine, to submit written assurances it will comply with human rights laws or lose U.S. assistance.
All countries that receive U.S. military aid are already required to adhere to these standards under existing human rights laws. These include the Foreign Assistance Act and the Leahy laws, named after their author, former Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The Leahy laws cut off security aid to specific units of foreign militaries if the Pentagon and the State Department determine a country has committed a gross violation of human rights, such as shooting civilians or summarily executing prisoners.
“We did brief the Israelis on this,” said Jean-Pierre. “They reiterated their willingness to provide these types of assurances.”
Leahy, former administration officials and some lawmakers and congressional staffers say the arms transfers laws referenced in the memorandum have not been applied to Israel across multiple administrations, despite credible reports of human rights abuses.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told Defense News “we have not seen any violations of the standards so have no plans to restrict assistance at this time.”
Sarah Harrison, who was the Pentagon’s lead attorney for Leahy law human rights vetting between 2017 and 2021 and now is a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the memorandum appears to be “another performative measure by the Biden administration to kind of stave off critics because they were getting a lot of heat from the Senate on this.”
Israel and Ukraine signed similar agreements in December 2021 pursuant to the Leahy laws stating they will not transfer U.S.-provided security assistance to an ineligible military unit if the State Department determines it’s responsible for a gross human rights violation. The State Department has given Kyiv a list of Ukrainian units that have committed human rights violations, rendering them ineligible for U.S. security assistance, but has not done the same for Israel.
Jean-Pierre noted the White House memorandum “emerged in part with our discussions with members of Congress” as lawmakers struggle to pass Biden’s $95 billion foreign aid request that includes $14 billion in additional military aid to Israel and $60 billion in more support for Ukraine.
Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and 18 members of the Democratic caucus have introduced an amendment to the spending bill that would reinforce existing law under the Foreign Assistance Act. The provision bans military aid to countries that obstruct the delivery of U.S. humanitarian assistance. A December Human Rights Watch report found Israel is using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza, amounting to a war crime.
Biden’s executive memorandum largely mirrors language in Van Hollen’s amendment. Van Hollen and his allies first started discussing the language with the White House in December.
The Senate is expected to vote on final passage of the $95 billion foreign aid bill over the next few days, but senators may not have opportunities to offer amendments. The bill’s fate in the House is also unclear amid substantial Republican opposition to additional Ukraine aid.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.