Biden threatens to withhold weapons to Israel if IDF launches major operation in Rafah

The president’s comments mark a significant policy shift towards the Jewish state

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 07: U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with survivors of the Holocaust and members of the Jewish community after giving remarks during the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Annual Days of Remembrance ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on May 07, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden told CNN in a Wednesday interview that he will withhold certain weapons transfers to Israel if the IDF mounts a major ground operation in Rafah, the first time Biden has explicitly stated that the U.S. is conditioning arms transfers to Israel.  

Last month, the White House threatened to shift its policy toward Israel if it didn’t take additional precautions to protect civilians — and Wednesday’s interview confirmed that was not an empty threat.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers, and I made it clear that if they go into Rafah — they haven’t gone into Rafah yet — if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem,” Biden said. It was also the first time the president acknowledged that U.S.-supplied weapons have been responsible for the death of civilians in Gaza. 

“We’re going to continue to make sure Israel is secure in terms of Iron Dome and their ability to respond to attacks like [those that] came out of the Middle East recently, but it’s just wrong. We’re not going to supply the weapons and the artillery shells that have been used,” said Biden. Israel has “not yet” crossed Biden’s red line on Rafah, he said, even as the IDF began a more limited operation in the southern Gaza city this week. But Washington has already held up one shipment, Biden acknowledged. 

In a speech one day earlier, Biden said at a Holocaust memorial event at the Capitol that his commitment to the “security of Israel and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is ironclad, even when we disagree.” (The Associated Press reported that Biden waited to weigh in on Rafah until after he delivered his Holocaust remembrance address.)

A senior Biden administration official told JI after Biden’s interview that withholding the arms shipments does not mean Biden’s support for Israel’s security is no longer “ironclad.” Instead, the official argued that there is a distinction between the U.S. giving Israel access to defensive weapons versus offensive weapons — and that the bombs the U.S. is withholding are not needed for defensive purposes.

“It’s ironclad to Israel’s security, right, like, I mean, they need Iron Dome defense systems. You can argue that they don’t need a 2,000-pound unguided munition in order to defend themselves,” the official said. “He is drawing a distinction in the interview between defensive weapons, which he will always support, and some types of offensive weapons, for instance, the 500-pound, 1,000-pound unguided munitions that Israel would use in a Rafah operation if they decided to move forward with that.”

Biden’s Wednesday comments signal a major shift in U.S. policy toward Israel in its seven-month war against Hamas in Gaza. From close to the beginning of the war, which began with Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, Biden and top administration officials have told Israel to do more to protect civilians and aid workers in Gaza, warning Israel not to follow the path of America’s destructive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. He echoed those concerns again on Wednesday while acknowledging the severity of the Oct. 7 attacks. 

“Nothing’s like that’s happened to the Jewish community since the Holocaust. When I went over immediately after that happened I said to Bibi, ‘Don’t make the same mistake we made in America. We wanted to get Bin Laden and we’ll help you get Sinwar,’” Biden said, referring to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. “Don’t make the same mistake. Focus on — and we’ll help you focus on getting the bad guys.”

In the interview, Biden didn’t mention the more than 130 hostages still remaining in Gaza, nor did he refer to Hamas by name. The senior administration official said that’s because Burnett did not specifically ask Biden about the hostages. 

Biden’s interview quickly drew condemnation from pro-Israel Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, some of whom alleged that Biden’s decision to halt the arms shipment and pressure Israel on Rafah removes Israel’s key leverage in the ongoing hostage negotiations. The senior administration official disputed this argument, saying the U.S. continues to exert pressure on Hamas.

“We have been putting a lot of pressure on them for that and on Hamas for that. If anyone out there would want to conclude, ‘Oh, we’re not doing that, we’re only pressuring Israel,’ that is absolutely not true. We’ve been putting a lot of pressure on Hamas and will continue to do that,” said the official. 

Sen. John Fetterman, on X, offered sharp criticism of Biden’s decision. “Hard disagree and deeply disappointing,” he wrote.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) noted to JI, “[Biden] came to this Congress and he said pass legislation… you can’t come to members and get them to vote for your bill, your package, and then throw away part of the package.” He added that, legally, the funds appropriated by Congress must be used.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) told JI, “I support Israel’s desire to destroy Hamas in Gaza. They attacked brutally on 7 October, and Hamas has to be destroyed in Gaza to the best that they can. To stand in front of that, that means President Biden wants Hamas to continue to exist in Gaza, which is a continuous threat to Israel. It’s wrong.” He also alluded to former President Donald Trump’s impeachment over his decision to withhold arms sales to Ukraine.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.