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World leaders gather in Munich for security conference

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

World leaders and defense ministers are gathering in Germany for the Munich Security Conference. The high-profile summit is a chance to discuss pressing global security issues. And this year, the war in Ukraine and the United States' relationship to it are top issues. That's because support for Ukraine has become a point of tension in Congress, as many Republicans oppose sending more aid. U.S. Senator Chris Coons is a Democrat representing Delaware. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is attending the conference with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Senator, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHRIS COONS: Thanks. Great being on with you, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: So this summit is happening amid this debate over Ukraine aid in Congress, and just days after former President Trump made comments that suggest he might not support NATO allies if elected again. What kinds of pointed questions are you getting from U.S. allies there?

COONS: Virtually every meeting that we've had here, the question of whether or not the Congress of the United States will pass robust funding to sustain Ukraine's brave fight against Russian aggression has been front and center. One of the key things that's happened here in Europe, just before the Senate passed the supplemental funding bill, was that the European Union approved a $50 billion, four-year support package for Ukraine. We met earlier today with President Zelenskyy, who made it blindingly clear that Ukrainian troops who continue to fight on the frontline against Russian aggression are now having to ration their artillery, are beginning to lose ground and are eagerly awaiting the next resupply of American arms and financial support.

DOMONOSKE: And what's your answer to these questions? What do you say will be happening?

COONS: Well, the Senate voted by a margin of 70-29 to advance a $95 billion aid package that includes support for Ukraine, support for Israel, significant humanitarian support for both Gaza and Ukrainians and other countries, as well as investment in our Indo-Pacific partners. There's also a delegation here from the House. And a group of us have been sitting, meeting and talking with our House of Representatives colleagues about, what is their path forward for passing this through the House of Representatives once we return?

DOMONOSKE: And, Senator, if Congress can't pass the aid package for Ukraine, are there any workarounds the administration can do, surplus funds or executive actions to meet the need that you're describing?

COONS: Not that I'm aware of. The first briefing that our delegation got was with General Cavoli, who is the four-star Army general who's in charge of all U.S. forces in Europe. And he gave a fairly bracing briefing on exactly that question, on what options there might be, on what the consequences will be on the battlefield if the U.S. does not continue to be a close and reliable partner.

DOMONOSKE: I want to turn to another big topic at this conference, Gaza. The death toll there is approaching 30,000 people. How can the U.S. use its leverage to reduce civilian casualties?

COONS: Well, I think our president and our secretary of state, who's also been at this conference, our vice president, who spoke at this conference, continue to make the point simultaneously that we recognize and support Israel's right of self-defense, its obligation to defend its own people from Hamas, which carried out a horrific attack on Israeli civilians on October 7. Yet Israel is also obligated to conduct its war against Hamas according to the international standards, the expectation that they will minimize civilian casualties. Part of the conversations we've had here are about the importance of delivering humanitarian aid by every means possible into Gaza and encouraging or pressuring Israel to conduct the remaining campaign against Hamas in a way that avoids and reduces civilian casualties.

DOMONOSKE: Senator, you and other U.S. leaders have been encouraging Israel to conduct this campaign in a way that protects civilian lives for months now. Is that working?

COONS: There have been some changes. Israel has withdrawn several of its combat battalions from Gaza. There have been, I think, positive impacts on settler violence in the West Bank as a result of President Biden's issuance of sanctions against those who were encouraging or facilitating settler violence. But frankly, it hasn't been enough. Because Hamas is embedded underneath Gaza, because they've used tunnels and put their storehouses and the place where they are holding hostages now for hundreds of days underneath civilian infrastructure, it is difficult. But it is reasonable of us to expect Israel to conduct the remainder of its campaign against Hamas in a way that follows international civilian standards.

DOMONOSKE: Are there other sources of leverage the U.S. can use to be more persuasive in these conversations with Benjamin Netanyahu?

COONS: I think President Biden has done everything he can to apply leverage to be persuasive of Prime Minister Netanyahu. The other issue that is right in front of us is the commitment to a two-state solution, something that most of the leaders of other countries we met with restated that for decades they've been committed to a two-state solution, as is the United States. One of the most frustrating aspects of engaging with Prime Minister Netanyahu has been his steadfast opposition to a two-state solution. Only if there is some path towards security, dignity and self-governance for the Palestinian people can we be optimistic about the future. And this is a real pinch point in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

DOMONOSKE: How realistic at this point do you think it is to pursue a two-state solution?

COONS: It is very difficult, both because of circumstances on the ground, things that the Israeli government have done over the last years that make it harder and harder to actually achieve that. And frankly, because of the understandable trauma of the Israeli people when there has been this terrible terrorist attack, and there are ongoing daily attacks on Israel's security. But in the bigger picture, in the longer term, the possibility of reconciliation with Saudi Arabia - recognition - the end to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has lasted for decades and the achievement of regional and lasting peace has to be the thing that we lift up in conversations, both with regional partners, potential partners and with Israeli leaders.

DOMONOSKE: Senator Coons, I want to go back to the question of aid. As you noted, sufficient aid is simply not getting into Gaza at this point. Would you support the United States joining countries like Jordan in airlifting aid into Gaza?

COONS: Yes.

DOMONOSKE: Is that a topic of conversation at the conference?

COONS: Yes. The head of the World Food Program, Cindy McCain, is here. And I am going from here to the region where I'll be meeting with the leaders of all the regional humanitarian organizations. About two weeks ago, I had a virtual meeting from Delaware, my home state, with the heads of a whole range of nonprofits that are active in Gaza that are providing humanitarian support. We have to do everything we reasonably can, whether it's by sealift, by air, by getting the Erez gate at the very northern end of Gaza opened, we have to pursue every means possible to deliver humanitarian aid into Gaza to avoid an escalation of the current humanitarian catastrophe.

DOMONOSKE: That's U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. He joined us from the Munich Security Conference in Germany. Thank you.

COONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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