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Senate Battle Erupts Over Charges Israel Violates Human Rights

Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hit out at fellow Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy for putting Israel and Egypt on the same level in responding to allegations of human rights violations in each country.

“There’s no comparison here,” said Cardin, of Maryland, when asked to comment on a recent letter by Leahy, who represents Vermont, to Secretary of State John Kerry. In the letter, Leahy, a fellow Democrat, requested an investigation of both countries under a provision in U.S. law that calls for cuts in U.S. aid to human rights violators.

“Israel has rule of law,” Cardin told the Forward, referring to the March 29 letter, which a group of 10 House members also signed. “They have a system that will hold those individuals accountable…There’s no equivalency here.”

Leahy’s request for an investigation of Israel and Egypt comes under the provisions of a human rights law he himself originally sponsored, known as the Leahy Law. Under it, the State Department and the Pentagon are prohibited from providing military assistance to foreign military units “if the secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” The legislation was first passed in 1997 and has undergone a series of updates since then strengthening it.

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But in his letter, Leahy said that the way in which Israel and Egypt receive aid separately from other countries, under the 1978 Camp David Accords, “has created a unique situation that has hindered implementation” of the law bearing his name. In the case of Israel, Leahy voiced concern about recent reports from Amnesty International and other human rights groups of “extra-judicial killings” and “reports of the use of torture.”

Since last fall, Israel has been trying to defend its citizens from a spate of knifings by Palestinians, mostly from predominantly Arab sections of Jerusalem that Israel unilaterally annexed in 1967 and the West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation. About 30 Israelis have been killed in these attacks while 187 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces or civilians—most while carrying out or attempting attacks, according to Israeli authorities. The rest were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces.

Leahy cited four Palestinian residents of Jerusalem or the Israeli-occupied West Bank whose killings were captured in photos or videos, or in which eyewitness accounts have emerged, that challenge the military’s description of the circumstances justifying the killing.

Israelis are currently dealing with a new controversy over the most recent killing captured on video last week, in Hebron, in which an Israeli medic appears to come on the scene and shoot dead a Palestinian who had been lying wounded on the ground for about six minutes. The medic, Elor Azarya, a dual French-Israel citizen, was quickly condemned for his actions by Israeli military and political leaders, some of whom said he would be charged with murder. A military judge said Tuesday that the evidence so far was not clear-cut.

Under the Leahy Law, aid is not cut from the country in question as a whole but to specific military units if the secretary of state determines they have been involved in human rights violations.

Cardin, who just returned from a trip to Israel and several other Middle Eastern countries, said of Leahy’s initiative, “I thought the letter was just wrong.”

Cardin’s trip to the region, which ran March 18 to March 26, also included stops in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Arriving in the aftermath of last fall’s contentious fight over the Iran nuclear framework agreement, which was strongly opposed by Israel and the two Arab Gulf countries, Cardin said he sensed a greater openness in the two Sunni Arab countries for cooperation with Israel to oppose Iran, a Shia country whose increasing influence and military activity in the region all three fear.

“Their attitude towards Israel seemed much more hopeful,” he said. “They see Israel as a more stable influence in the region, and one that also shares their concern about Iran.”

Cardin said that American officials briefed him on the status of negotiations over a new long-term plan for U.S. military aid to Israel and U.S.-Israel military cooperation known as a memorandum of understanding. He disputed a report published March 31 in the Jerusalem Post claiming that Israeli officials were holding up approval of the deal to keep Washington from backing a U.N. security council resolution on ground rules for ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Instead, Cardin said, he believed that the current negotiations are focused on how the new memorandum would deal with Israeli spending on technologies developed by the Israelis themselves, and on whether Israel’s missile defense systems will be included in the deal. Under the current memorandum of understanding, Israel is required to spend nearly three-quarters of its U.S. military aid on U.S. soil.

Cardin said that he opposed U.S. support for any resolution on Israel in the U.N. Security Council on Israel—a move the Obama administration is reportedly considering.

“I strongly agree with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu that it would be very counterproductive to try to have the United Nations be an honest broker,” Cardin said. “They’re not an honest broker.”

Cardin said in a meeting he held with Netanyahu, his wife Myrna Cardin, who traveled with him, asked about the prime minister’s apparent reversal of a deal to allow egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. “It’s a matter of personal concern to me, and I think to a lot of American Jews,” Cardin said. “The prime minister said privately to Myrna that he’s working on it in a way that gave us confidence that he is looking for a solution.”

Netanyahu’s backtracking on the deal came amid press reports of dissent among ultra-Orthodox members of his governing coalition. “We recognize the political hurdle,” Cardin said.

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