Leahy clashes with Netanyahu over Israeli rights record – Nahal Toosi/POLITICO
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are in a war of words over the Democrat’s request that the State Department investigate alleged human rights violations by Israeli and Egyptian security forces.
Leahy and 10 House members sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Feb. 17 that lists several examples of alleged Egyptian and Israeli “gross violations of human rights,” including extrajudicial killings, that should be examined. The letter’s contents were first reported by POLITICO on Tuesday evening.
Leahy’s signature drew special attention because his name is on a law that conditions U.S. military aid to foreign countries on those countries’ human rights records.
“In light of these reports (of suspected abuses) we request that you act promptly to determine their credibility and whether they trigger the Leahy Law and, if so, take appropriate action called for under the law,” the letter states.
The lawmakers’ request was big news in Israel on Wednesday. Leaders there bristled at the notion that the Middle Eastern democracy and longtime U.S. ally could be cast as a human rights abuser.
Netanyahu issued a sharp response, defending his security forces, whom he said protect the innocent from “bloodthirsty terrorists who come to murder them.”
“This letter should have been addressed instead to those who incite youngsters to commit cruel acts of terrorism,” said Netanyahu in a statement released by his aides.
Leahy chided Netanyahu in a statement of his own, writing: “The prime minister of Israel knows — and it should go without saying” — that the U.S. has long supported Israel in its struggle against Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas, and that there are many U.S. laws prohibiting aid to such groups.
“The congressional letter cites allegations of possible serious abuses, identified by respected international human rights organizations, by the military and police forces of Egypt and Israel. Under the Leahy Law it is the responsibility of the State Department to evaluate the credibility of such allegations,” the senator wrote.
It’s difficult to measure the impact of the Leahy Law in part because the U.S. often keeps secret if and when it applies the statute. And while U.S. funding to a particular foreign military unit may be cut off as a result of the law, overall U.S. military aid to the country need not be stopped.
Egypt’s inclusion in the lawmakers’ missive also is a tricky issue. The U.S. is so wary of losing the Arab country’s alliance that it declined to call the military’s 2013 takeover over of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government a “coup” — knowing that it would trigger a legal obligation to stop military aid.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that Kerry had received the letter and that a response is in the works.
The U.S. already applies the Leahy Law in Egypt and Israel, “in the same way we do globally,” Kirby said. “We do not provide assistance to any security force unit in Egypt or Israel when we have credible information that they have committed a gross violation of human rights.”
State Department officials, however, declined to offer any examples of when they’ve used the Leahy Law to cut off funding for Egyptian or Israeli military units.