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The IDF comes to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Democrats

An Israeli major general made a quiet trip to the Capitol Monday night to reassure Democratic senators who have been critical of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

The meeting, which took place in the LBJ Room just off the Senate floor, included other senior Israeli Defense Forces officials and more than a dozen Senate Democrats. It came as progressives across the United States are speaking out angrily against Israel’s operations in Gaza, which have resulted in thousands of Palestinian casualties.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) organized the meeting in conjunction with the Israeli embassy, we’re told. The conversation focused on the operational aspects and objectives of Israel’s war against Hamas. Senators told us they had candid exchanges with the IDF officials, but some also indicated they still have deep concerns about Israel’s ultimate goals in Gaza.

“We just want to be assured that they are abiding by American values as they try to dismantle Hamas. We all conveyed that collectively and clearly,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told us following the meeting. “I do believe they heard us. But obviously, we have a long way to go.”

Israel launched its military effort in Gaza after Hamas militants brutally murdered more than 1,200 people in Israel, including a number of Americans, on Oct. 7. Hamas took more than 200 people hostage, some of whom have been released in recent days in exchange for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. A temporary ceasefire was extended by two days on Monday.

Senate Democrats are expected to take up the issue of whether to add conditions on U.S. aid to Israel during their weekly caucus lunch today.

“I think it’s important that [this conversation] happens. It’s not just me,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who wrote a New York Times op-ed calling for such restrictions. “I do not support simply giving $14 billion to Israel without any conditions at all. So I think it’s an issue that needs to be debated.”

Progressives are strongly in favor of imposing such conditions, noting that Congress routinely does this through the foreign military financing program. Schatz said it’s “reasonable” to require some conditions, adding that Israel shouldn’t be “an exception to the general practice that the Congress has in describing how they want and expect the money to be spent.”

But top Democrats simply don’t think this is necessary, pointing to President Joe Biden’s public and private efforts to pressure Israel to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.

“I don’t think there’s a need for conditionality,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Monday. “The way the president has handled his conversations with the Israelis has produced tangible results, including the amount of humanitarian assistance and the strategy on the military side.”

The Israel aid package approved by the House is hung up in the Senate due to Speaker Mike Johnson’s insistence on offsetting this funding with IRS budget cuts. Senate Democrats and the White House reject this approach.

News on the border talks: The bipartisan Senate group negotiating border and immigration policy changes spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the weekend, according to multiple sources, as senators inch closer to a potential deal that would clear the way for aid for both Ukraine and Israel.

The Sunday phone call with Mayorkas took place as senators are hoping to wrap up the talks in the next few days. This would give them time to draft legislative language and — more importantly — sell it to their colleagues.

“We have to come to an agreement this week in order to get this on the floor before the recess,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the lead Democratic negotiator, told us. “We’re not very practiced at writing complicated immigration law here because we haven’t passed something of substance in 40 years. So we need to get this done soon.”

Senate Democrats have already agreed to several policy changes on the asylum side, according to sources familiar with the talks. The bipartisan group is already exchanging legislative text on some provisions.

What appears to be off the table, however, is a GOP demand to restore a Trump-era policy that barred migrants from seeking asylum if they had already passed through another country.

Johnson said Monday that he’s already in touch with senators about the border talks, and he expressed a willingness to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion by approving more U.S. military aid.

But House GOP conservatives, many of whom vehemently oppose any new Ukraine funding, are certain to argue that the Senate’s bipartisan border deal doesn’t go far enough.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune indicated it’ll be incumbent upon Senate Republicans to push back against that narrative.

“If we can move a bill out of here that gets a good, strong Republican vote, then I think it helps significantly in trying to get it across the finish line in the House,” Thune said.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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