Weapons worries

Center-left Democrats break with Biden over Israel arms threat

‘The Administration should not do anything that undermines Israel’s ability to defeat Hamas and address mounting threats across the region,’ Sen. Jacky Rosen said


President Joe Biden holds a press conference following a solidarity visit to Israel, on October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.

A growing number of center-left, pro-Israel Democrats broke with President Joe Biden on Thursday over his threat to fully cut offensive military aid to Israel if it moves ahead with an operation in Rafah. The administration has already frozen at least one delivery of weapons to Israel.

“We need to provide Israel with the unconditional security assistance it needs to defend itself and that demonstrates our unwavering support, particularly as Iran and its proxies escalate their attacks,” Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) told Jewish Insider. “The administration should not do anything that undermines Israel’s ability to defeat Hamas and address mounting threats across the region.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said he wants to see U.S. support for Israel continue.

“I don’t know what the president meant. I haven’t seen what the actual operation in Rafah is, but I certainly hope that we’ll continue to provide support militarily and diplomatically that Israel needs to defend itself,” he said. 

Asked if he thinks the announcement will empower Hamas in negotiations, he said, “I am worried about any appearance of division between the United States and Israel. The bond should be unquestionable and unbreakable.”

Pressed repeatedly on whether he had faith in the Biden administration to fulfill Israel’s requests in the short term, Blumenthal demurred, instead saying that he believed the “mutuality of interests and the strength of our bonds” would “continue to prevail.”

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), who was quick to express his disagreement with Biden’s remarks, saying they are “deeply disappointing” and “demonstrates to Hamas that they’re winning the PR war,” told JI that he wouldn’t try to counteract the new Biden policy.

“I’m not in a position to undermine the president,” Fetterman said. “He’s my president and I’ve always rejected any other members of my party talking about ‘uncommitted,’ or ‘abandon Biden’ or any of that stuff. That’s crazy, and if they deliver a Trump victory, they have to own it.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a pro-Israel Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has opposed efforts to cut off aid to Israel, largely declined to weigh in on Biden’s move.

“I’m having conversations with the administration on this,” Cardin said. “Once I finish those conversations, I think I’ll be in a position to respond.”

He said that the pressure “should be on Hamas… we get this deal, we get the pause, there’s no Rafah campaign.”

Numerous other pro-Israel House Democrats came out against the Biden push on Thursday.

“The President’s actions signal weakness to Hamas, to our allies and adversaries abroad, and at home,” Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), one of the most electorally endangered Democrats, said on X. “Congress appropriated funds for arms and ammunition for Israel, and they should be promptly delivered.”

“I am deeply concerned about the administration’s recent decision to pause a shipment of weapons as well as the President’s comments about withholding security assistance to Israel,” Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) said. “I fear the U.S. is sending dangerous mixed messages, not just to the government and people of Israel, but also to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, about our support for our ally at its most critical time of need.”

In comments on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a close Biden ally who’s been critical of Israel’s operations in Gaza, appeared to create some distance from the president’s position.

Coons said that he has recently told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “you have to go after Rafah and the four remaining battalions, and secure Gaza, and make sure Hamas does not re-emerge as a fighting force.”

But Coons also said Israel must relocate “all of the civilians in Rafah” to the north of Gaza, with provisions for shelter and humanitarian aid — a prospect that will be difficult to achieve.

Administration officials said on Thursday that the U.S. does not support any operation in Rafah, with or without civilian evacuation procedures, which Israel has already begun. They also said that the administration believes that Israel’s efforts to defeat Hamas have already “largely succeeded.”

A Democrat familiar with Biden’s thinking sent a different message, telling JI on Wednesday that some of his military advisers believe Israel could prevent civilian casualties by delaying an invasion into Rafah by three to four weeks. Doing so, they said, would allow for the mass evacuation of civilians into the north of Gaza who had previously taken refuge in the south. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) declined to endorse Biden’s move in a statement to JI, citing a lack of clarity.

“I support Israel’s right to defend itself and fight back against Hamas. I’ve also been clear that Israel must do more to protect civilian lives and much more needs to be done to get humanitarian aid into Gaza,” Brown said. “We need to know more about the president’s proposal and exactly how it will work. The administration hasn’t shared that information with Congress yet.”

“He’s being very cautious because of what can happen in Rafah, so I think he’s being very thoughtful,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said. “Certainly Hamas are barbarians, no question about it, but at this point I think the challenge is both getting the hostages back and also stopping loss of innocent life. So I think he’s doing this in a thoughtful way.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) said that while he still believes Hamas must be defeated, he also thought that Israel was capable of prosecuting the war with more discipline. 

“I haven’t looked at the details of what the president announced,” Kelly told JI. “We need to make sure Hamas is defeated. At the same time, I’ve got concerns with how this operation has been conducted, specifically with the use of unguided munitions in dense urban areas. A hard thing to do. I’ve stressed this to them a number of times, I think. For me personally, if I don’t see a better response out of them, I think it’s appropriate to condition aid.”

Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT), who has been critical of Israel’s approach to the war effort for months, specifically the broader bombing campaigns, said he supported Biden’s move while acknowledging that Hamas must still be defeated.

“We have a very difficult situation. Hamas is evil, and they’re using Palestinians as hostages, human shields. So how do we get rid of Hamas without causing enormous loss of civilian life?” Welch said. “The weapons he’s suspending are 2,000-pound bombs. How can you possibly drop a 2,000-pound bomb in the most densely populated two square mile section of the world without causing unlimited pain and suffering?”

Pressed on how Hamas could be handled militarily without an Israeli military operation into Rafah, Welch said that a “peacekeeping military force, ideally with Arab states” will be a “necessity… because Hamas is a real threat.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) brushed off a question from JI about how the Biden announcement would impact Israel’s negotiating position in hostage talks, but expressed support for the move.

“The president is demonstrating by his actions that military aid to anyone is conditional. And [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to choke off humanitarian aid and is moving forward to bomb Rafah at a time when the United States has indicated they think that is a very bad idea,” Warren said. “We are as a nation not going to be a passive rider on a bus driven by Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Republicans, meanwhile, expressed anger at the administration’s hold.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a resolution on Thursday condemning the decision to halt weapons and ammunition shipments that all but one Senate Republican, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), cosponsored. The South Carolina senator held a press conference alongside a group of those members urging Biden to “reconsider” the move.

“It’s okay to reconsider and change your mind when circumstances warrants it,” Graham said. “We want Israel to survive and thrive. We want Hamas destroyed. We want the Palestinians to have a better future. That only happens when you’re unequivocal. Now’s the time, Mr. President, to send a message to all the bad guys that we’re with Israel. Now’s the time, Mr. President, to reinforce all the rhetoric you’ve been saying for the last six months.”

Graham told JI he’s privately spoken to Democrats about finding Biden an “off-ramp” that would allow him reverse course. 

“I don’t want to incentivize groups to do this in the future, to run up the number of casualties to get us to back down. Hamas is trying to make it hard to kill them and easy to kill civilians, we don’t want that. We want to disincentivize this behavior. So I’m hoping they’ll find a way forward in Rafah that we can all agree with,” Graham said. 

Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is generally consulted on U.S. arms sales to Israel, described the administration’s decision to freeze certain existing weapons sales as unprecedented. 

“This is a really bad idea trying to command Israeli armed forces from thousands of miles away, particularly when you don’t have an authority to do it,” he said. “We have an ally that is engaged in a conflict, we’ve made commitments… and now in the middle of it, we’re pulling the carpet out from under them.”

Risch said it’s a “real concern” that the new policy will undermine Israel’s negotiating position, and could further embolden other regional adversaries including Hezbollah and Iran.

He also noted that the Israelis have maintained that they will move into Rafah with or without U.S. support, and that some weapons the U.S. is withholding are guided munitions kits which help increase precision — ”it’s going to have the exact opposite effect of what the administration is trying to do.”

Risch said he doesn’t see legislative options for Congress to force the currently frozen sales — contracts between Israel and U.S. companies, using Israeli government funds, to which the U.S. government is not formally a party — to move ahead. He said Israeli and Boeing, the manufacturer, may have to take the issue to court, a slow process.

Aides suggested there might be pathways for Congress to intercede if Biden begins blocking all U.S. weapons sales to Israel, which would include blocking congressionally mandated spending.

Some congressional Republicans are calling for Biden to be impeached by the House over the move.

Graham, on the other hand, said that his primary focus was getting the president to change his mind. 

“I didn’t come here to impeach the president. I came here to let everybody know we don’t agree with this decision,” Graham said at his press conference.

Risch said he was kept out of the loop on the administration’s decision making and on the specific weapons being withheld, a perspective consistent with comments from other key congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle.

The sales being held, Risch and aides noted, predate the recent supplemental aid bill. They said the administration has also been slow-walking other military sales to Israel dating back to December and January — well before a Rafah operation was even in discussion. 

They further alleged that there are four arms sales cases under informal review by key Capitol Hill leaders that are being held by other members of the “four corners” — the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Cardin disputed that, saying that the sales are “in the review process” and that there are no formal holds on them. He also emphasized that the proposed sales won’t be delivered for years, and have “nothing to do with the conflict” and there’s “no reason to think that won’t be… normal.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that Risch is misrepresenting the situation: “Playing politics with the congressional arms review process and promoting inaccuracies undermines this crucial oversight prerogative,” he said in a statement.

A House Foreign Affairs Committee majority aide told JI that Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) said he has approved all four sales to Israel on which he has been consulted this year.

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