As 2024 opens with continued conflict in Ukraine and Israel, there’s a growing congressional push to exercise more oversight over how partners and allies use American weapons. While Israel has long been exempted from standard scrutiny, even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—a stalwart supporter of Israel—now says he’s willing to consider some reporting requirements as Congress debates a spending package for aid to Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific.
Amending this supplemental aid package to include reporting requirements consistent with U.S. and international law is one vital step toward ensuring our nation does not become complicit in violations that undermine prospects for peace and security worldwide.
Several in Congress and the broader public have raised significant concerns about whether Israel may be using U.S. weapons to perpetuate human rights abuses and civilian harm in conflict, particularly since Israel’s war in Gaza has cost over 25,000 Palestinian lives and resulted in a worsening humanitarian crisis. Congress functions to oversee public spending. Ensuring that U.S. taxpayer dollars do not perpetuate human rights abuses is core to this mandate and, as has been the case in Ukraine and other areas, can strengthen key national security interests.
The Biden administration’s own efforts to rush weapons have only underlined the need to preserve Congress’ oversight function. Despite evidence that Israel has used American weapons in strikes that have killed civilians, the administration has twice sought to bypass congressional review by using emergency authority to sell arms to Israel. Even more concerning, a provision in the President’s supplemental budget request would waive the requirement for the State Department to notify Congress of potential arms sales to Israel altogether in cases of “national security,” essentially allowing any arms sales to proceed without congressional review. Israel would be the only country in the world to enjoy this exception.
Some lawmakers are seeking to reconstitute Congress’ ability to oversee Israel’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons through amendments to the supplemental legislation. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has proposed an amendment that would strike the exception for notification on sales to Israel, preserving Congress’ right to a fifteen-day window for review.
What’s more, Senators Christopher Van Hollen (D-MD), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Kaine lead a group of fifteen Democratic senators who proposed an amendment that would require all the weapons funded by the package to be used in compliance with U.S. and international law. It would also require the State Department to report on how military equipment provided for by the appropriations complies with key policies on protecting human rights and avoiding civilian harm.
Together, these proposals would maintain the timely transfer of weapons to Israel while preserving Congress’ role in overseeing arms sales. They would also help ensure that security assistance complies with U.S. law and advances stated policy goals. For example, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 applies to any taxpayer-funded weapons sales and requires that such sales “promote and advance human rights.”
A year ago, the Biden administration rolled out its Conventional Arms Transfer policy, a comprehensive strategy for ensuring arms transfers strengthen our national security by “reinforcing respect for human rights, international humanitarian law, democratic governance, and rule of law.” A separate Department of Defense policy aims to verify security partners take appropriate steps to mitigate civilian harm. (Van Hollen et al.’s amendment would ask for reporting that ties explicitly back to these policies.)
Oversight and reporting requirements are hardly unprecedented. It’s standard practice for international weapons sales to undergo a congressional review period of between fifteen and thirty days—the exception for Israel would be the only one of its kind. For instance, Ukraine is already subject to specific reporting requirements on weapons delivered and “measures taken to account for their end-use.” The Department of State has provided detailed reports on the weapons it sends to Ukraine, made publicly available online.
Other legislation—like the National Defense Authorization Act or the annual State and Foreign Operations appropriations—also tend to include broad reporting requirements. Security assistance to Egypt, for example, requires a regular report on how the aid sustains peace with Israel. In recent years, it has also required the State Department to report on human rights progress in order to release a tranche of security assistance.
But when it comes to Israel, law and policymakers have enabled a unique relationship that doesn’t subject Israel to the same scrutiny or standards other security partners are required to meet. Biden administration officials have given mixed messages about whether any rights assessments have taken place—National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said he was not aware of any formal evaluation. However, the State Department does conduct regular investigations into potential violations.
Although some may argue the current threat from Hamas justifies an exception to existing law and policy, the circumstances in Ukraine underscore that oversight and accountability are not major impediments to support for defense. U.S. officials would be wise to establish guardrails for such support that would help align understandings of necessary assessments, allay legitimate public concern about violations, and—most importantly—protect against U.S. complicity in rights abuses or atrocities.
As Congress considers its support to allies and partners, it has an obligation to ensure that such support fulfills regional defense objectives and doesn’t facilitate abuse or harm. Congress should uphold this obligation by holding Israel to the same high standards of compliance with existing U.S. and international law and policy that other allies and partners have been required to meet. Congress should also ensure that this administration and future administrations are held to high standards of transparency through oversight.
Passing these amendments to the supplemental aid package would be an essential step in maintaining such standards. It would fulfill a moral imperative that we are not complicit in rights violations. It would also meet a national security imperative that we use foreign assistance to further the interests of stability and peace.
Allison McManus is a senior director for the National Security and International Policy Department at the Center for American Progress. Previously, she was the managing director at the Freedom Initiative, where she advocated for political prisoners in the Middle East and North Africa. She also served as the research director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy from 2014 to 2019. Follow her on X @AllisonLMcManus.