from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Will an Arms Sale to Israel be Delayed While It Defends Against Terrorist Attacks?

A congressional request for delay tests the Biden administration

Will the Biden administration withhold military aid to Israel because of pressure from the Democratic Party’s left wing?

Thus far in the fighting between Hamas and Israel, the administration has remained clear in its support for Israel’s right to defend itself. It has also clearly stated the moral distinctions between a democracy defending civilians and a terrorist group deliberately attacking them.

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But now the winds are shifting among Democrats on Capitol Hill. Twenty-nine Democratic senators have signed a letter calling for an immediate cease-fire—in essence a statement of neutrality between a key U.S. ally and a terrorist group. This is moral equivalence: no distinction is made between attacker and defender, between democratic government and terrorist. It bears the rancid taste of a thousand United Nations resolutions.

Worse yet, far worse, is a letter spearheaded by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks. In 2020, when he was competing for the chairmanship of the Committee, Meeks was against conditionality in aid to Israel. An August 20, 2020 article in Jewish Insider began this way:

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) expressed his firm opposition on Thursday to conditioning U.S. assistance to Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government unilaterally annexes portions of the West Bank.  “We know the extreme importance in the region to make sure that Israel has the right to defend itself — and the dollars that we give Israel to defend itself is absolute and unequivocal,” Meeks said in a Zoom call hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

But now Meeks is taking a very different view. The Jerusalem Post reports that:

Gregory Meeks called on members of the Democratic Party on Monday in the committee to discuss a deal to sell arms to Israel, which was proposed two weeks ago and is worth about $735 million.

He will also send a letter to US President Joe Biden calling to pause the sale, due to the escalation between Israel and Hamas.

There is a cruel irony here: the munitions sale in question is of “smart” bombs, of the sort that allow precision targeting and thereby spare civilian lives.  But the larger issue is clear: when Israel is under attack and using precision munitions, will the United States refuse to provide more of them? I would argue for the exact reverse policy: the United States should move quickly to resupply its ally, lest Hezbollah and Iran decide that if Israel faces potential shortages this is a good time for them to attack.

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The symbolism of any delay will not be lost on others whose security is dependent on the United States, from the UAE to Taiwan, nor on those hostile to the United States, from Iran to Russia and China.

All of which makes this a test for the Biden administration. In public it has been supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself, and has blocked U.N. Security Council statements that would treat a U.N. member state, Israel, and a terrorist group as equals. But President Biden is under pressure, and his rhetoric has changed; now he too speaks of a cease-fire rather than simply calling for Hamas to stop attacking—an action that would end the hostilities fast.

The greater test will be over this arms sale to Israel. If it is delayed, the Biden administration will have shown its pro-Israel rhetoric to be hollow and will demonstrate that in the Democratic Party the traditional support for Israel is eroding quickly. My own bet is that the sale will not be delayed, because administration officials will realize the gravity of such a step. We will know the answer soon.