U.S. aid to Ukraine, Israel set to pass. But bills differ in one key area

Click to play video: 'G7 summit: Ukraine urges nations to supply more air defence against Russian attacks'
G7 summit: Ukraine urges nations to supply more air defence against Russian attacks
WATCH: G7 summit: Ukraine urges nations to supply more air defence against Russian attacks – Apr 18, 2024

The final form of how U.S. aid will finally begin flowing to Ukraine and Israel is taking shape this week after months of delay — and it may end up including additional oversight for only one of those countries.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote Saturday on a series of bills that will approve billions of dollars of new military, financial and humanitarian aid to support Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and the Indo-Pacific region, the last of which includes money to help Taiwan defend itself from a potential Chinese military takeover.

The Senate will then have to approve its version of the legislation before U.S. President Joe Biden can sign it into law.

The bills largely mirror, with some modifications, a US$95-billion foreign aid package passed by the Senate in February, which was split into separate bills in the House. Both versions of the Ukraine legislation would unlock US$60 billion in aid, while also requiring the Biden administration to regularly update Congress on how that money is being spent, as well as provide a report on America’s long-term strategy for helping Ukraine in its battle against Russia’s invasion.

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No such provisions are in place for the US$26.38 billion that would be sent to Israel, a discrepancy that foreign policy and military experts agree is a political calculation based on long-standing precedent.

“The U.S. has a long history of arm sales to Israel (so they can say) we have a level of trust with them that Ukraine … doesn’t have,” said Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who focuses on defence policy.

“There’s a perception among some Republicans of Ukraine as a corrupt country, which was certainly once true when it was tied to the Soviet Union and remains an issue, but has been fed and fueled by Russian disinformation as a reason to not send more aid.”

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Japanese PM delivers warning on Russian, North Korean nukes in speech to U.S. Congress

U.S. aid to Ukraine, which has totalled US$113.4 billion approved by Congress to date, has been subject to strict scrutiny ever since Russia invaded the country over two years ago.

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Yet so far, the nearly two-dozen inspector general offices and audit agencies working to oversee that aid, and regularly report to Congress, have found no evidence of Ukrainian corruption of U.S. funds. The Pentagon’s inspector general told a House committee just as much at a hearing last year, while noting there were open investigations into allegations.

In its first report to Congress in February, the newly appointed Special Inspector General overseeing and coordinating those watchdogs found fraud and corruption investigations have accused U.S. service members and a Romanian employee of a U.S. defence subcontractor of theft and attempted kickbacks, but no Ukrainian officials have been implicated.

The report also noted that, according to the Pentagon agency responsible for delivering military aid to Ukraine, there was “no information to suggest that the (Ukrainian Armed Forces) was using (weapons and equipment provided by the U.S.) in a way other than their intended purpose.”

Despite these existing oversight and reporting practices, the new Ukraine aid bill asks the U.S. defence secretary to submit a report on “measures being taken to account for United States defence articles designated for Ukraine,” including “measures to ensure that such articles reach their intended recipients and are used for their intended purposes.”

The bill asks for the report to be delivered within 60 days after becoming law.

In addition, the bill asks for monthly reports listing what weapons and equipment have been sent to Ukraine, along with the funds used to pay for them.

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“If you’re skeptic, you would say they haven’t found (the corruption yet) and (the oversight agencies) aren’t doing a thorough enough job,” said Kurt Volker, who served as both U.S. ambassador to NATO and a special representative for Ukraine and is now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“There’s no harm in adding an additional layer of scrutiny, and that helps everybody feel comfortable.”

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: Zelenskyy calls for world to hear the pain inflicted by attacks on Kharkiv'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: Zelenskyy calls for world to hear the pain inflicted by attacks on Kharkiv

The bill also stipulates that both the State and Defence secretaries will submit a report to Congress within 45 days on the long-term strategy for U.S. support for Ukraine.

The report must outline “specific and achievable objectives,” defined U.S. national security interests related to the war, and “metrics to be used to measure progress in achieving such objectives,” the bill says, along with estimated price tags.

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The Biden administration has not specifically identified publicly what it hopes to achieve in Ukraine beyond ensuring Russia doesn’t win the war or succeed in taking territory. Republicans particularly have repeatedly asked for such a plan to ensure the U.S. doesn’t end up in another “forever war.”

Both the Biden administration and the Ukrainian government will likely “swallow” the requirement for additional oversight and stated aims in exchange for ensuring the swift delivery of aid, said Colin Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat to the U.S.

“No one wants to be seen as responsible for Ukraine’s defeat, which is practically guaranteed without more U.S. aid,” he said.

Should similar scrutiny apply on Israel?

Meanwhile, there’s been growing debate over whether similar wording should apply to any U.S. aid sent to Israel.

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As it stands now, the language in the Ukraine aid bill on ensuring proper use and delivery of military assets is not mirrored in the separate aid package for Israel, which if passed would be the first one approved by Congress since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

Instead, it includes text that requires monitoring the delivery of humanitarian aid for people in Gaza to ensure it’s not diverted to Hamas or “other terrorist and extremist entities in the West Bank and Gaza,” along with reports detailing the prevention of such misuse.

The bill sets aside an additional US$9 billion in humanitarian aid.

As a group of Democratic senators noted in a letter to Biden in December, Israel is one of the few countries in the world permitted to use foreign military financing, a procurement method that allows direct purchases of U.S. military equipment from American manufacturers. Uniquely, Israel is also allowed to use those funds on its own domestic military industrial base.

Countries that use foreign military financing are not required to publicly disclose their purchases and are not subject to traditional congressional oversight. Only a select group of top lawmakers focused on national security and intelligence are able to see how the money is used.

The Senate in January voted down legislation pushed by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders that would have required the State Department to report to Congress on allegations of Israeli human rights violations in Gaza, or risk having U.S. aid to Israel frozen.

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In February, Biden issued a memorandum requiring allies who receive U.S. military aid to provide “credible and reliable written assurances” that they are following international humanitarian laws.

Although the order did not single out Israel, Biden has become increasingly vocal in public about his efforts to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza. Biden warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month, after an Israeli strike killed seven aid workers, that future U.S. support would depend on Israel taking concrete steps to improve conditions in Gaza and protect innocent lives.

Click to play video: 'Biden pressuring Netanyahu to end suffering in Gaza'
Biden pressuring Netanyahu to end suffering in Gaza

Reuters reported on Friday that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he has made “determinations” regarding accusations that Israel violated a set of U.S. laws that prohibit providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights.

The Leahy Laws, authored by then-Senator Patrick Leahy in the late 1990s, prohibit providing military assistance to individuals or security force units that commit gross violations of human rights and have not been brought to justice.

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Asked at a news conference in Italy about reports that the State Department has recommended the cutting off of military aid to certain Israeli security force units over possible human rights violations in the West Bank, Blinken did not outright confirm the reports but promised results very soon.

“I made determinations. You can expect to see them in the days ahead,” Blinken said, declining to elaborate.

Yet the Biden administration has continued to approve arms sales to Israel, bypassing Congress to do so. Experts say there is a discrepancy between how the U.S. readily supplies Israel with — including direct military support — while Ukraine waits to receive the same.

“We use U.S. forces alongside British and French and Jordanian forces to help protect Israelis from rocket and missile and drone attacks, but we don’t do the same thing for Ukraine,” Volker said. “So why is that?”

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