Israel arms sale exposes Democratic fault lines
A $735 million weapons sale is exposing fault lines in the Democratic Party over what to do about escalating violence in Israel, splitting party leaders who remain solid allies of Israel and more progressive Democrats who see Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a social injustice.
Democratic leaders have paved the way for the sale of joint direct attack munitions, which the Israel Defense Forces can use to make precision strikes, despite the outrage the sale is provoking among progressives.
And even Democrats who have been critical of Israel’s strikes on Gaza, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), said the weapons sale is a done deal and will not be unwound.
“That arms sale was already noticed a long time ago. That has gone through a whole vetting process already,” said Menendez, a longtime supporter of Israel who opposed the Iran nuclear deal but has been critical of the recent strikes.
Despite that criticism, Menendez said he supports the sale and pointed out “the leadership of both the Senate and — I believe — the House Foreign Relations Committee[s] were notified.”
“That’s the normal process. This is not an unusual process. This is the regular process, regular order on arms sales,” he added.
Opponents of the sale are scrambling for options to respond amid a rapidly closing window for Congress to block the deal.
Most arms sales are subject to a 30-day congressional review period where lawmakers can block a deal if they want. But some close allies, including Israel, are afforded a 15-day review period, and just three days remained Tuesday in the window to block the latest sale to Israel.
The administration notified lawmakers on May 5 that it had approved selling Israel $735 million in weapons, mostly of Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions that can turn so-called dumb bombs into precision-guided missiles.
More broadly, progressives, including some in positions of power such as House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are increasingly pushing to place more conditions on or revisit the $3.8 billion in military aid the United States sends Israel annually.
Party elders, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), are supporting U.S. aid to Israel amid rising criticism of that country’s policies by progressives. They say Israel has a right to defend itself and that the U.S. should provide support.
“Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. … It does not believe that Israel has the right to exist,” Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday. “It is a complicated situation, but I share the president’s view [that] there is no doubt that Israel has the right to defend itself.”
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas — the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip — is now in its second week and shows no sign of abating.
Religious tensions first boiled over at multiple sites in Israel earlier this month when Israeli police raided Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam, leaving hundreds of Palestinians wounded.
Hamas has since fired more than 3,000 rockets at Israel — most intercepted by the Iron Dome, a defense system supported by the U.S. — and the Israeli government has responded with scores of aerial bombings in Gaza. The number of Palestinian civilians killed and injured vastly exceeds the number of reported Israeli civilian casualties thus far.
President Biden hasn’t publicly demanded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree to a cease-fire, but the White House said the president expressed support for a cease-fire when the two leaders spoke Monday.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) largely echoed Biden in a Tuesday statement that called for a cease-fire. But in one notable difference that reflects the pressures she’s facing from progressives in her caucus, she called a cease-fire “necessary,” a word Biden did not use.
“It is in the U.S. national security interest to support security in Israel. Hamas exploited a volatile situation to initiate hostilities against Israel, launching more than 3,000 rockets, and as always, Israel has a right to defend herself,” Pelosi said.
“Now, after more than a week of hostilities, it has become even more apparent that a ceasefire is necessary,” she added. “There must be a serious effort on the part of both parties to end the violence and respect the rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.”
Neither Biden nor Pelosi called for an immediate cease-fire, as many liberals are doing. The two also did not call on Israel to change its course, as liberals in the party have demanded.
After news reports Monday about the precision-guided munitions deal, progressive fumed. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said it would be “appalling” for the sale to move forward, while Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress, tweeted that there should be “no more weapons to kill children and families.”
On Monday night, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) convened an emergency virtual meeting of Democrats on the panel to discuss both the arms deal specifically and the crisis in Gaza generally, a congressional aide confirmed to The Hill. At the meeting, Meeks told lawmakers he planned to send a letter to the Biden administration seeking a delay in the sale, the aide said.
But by Tuesday afternoon, Meeks said he dropped the effort after administration officials agreed to brief lawmakers on the sale and the administration’s broader strategy to resolve the crisis.
“What we wanted to do is to have a dialogue and conversation,” Meeks told reporters Tuesday. “We’re going to have a meeting with the administration tomorrow where the issues and the questions that one may have will be able to be asked, and that was the purpose of considering the letter.”
Meeks also emphasized the rocket fire Israel is coming under.
“Hamas is sending thousands of rockets over to Israel. Thank God we do have Iron Dome,” Meeks said. “That’s important. So, we all want — and I can say that took place in the meeting — we all want to get to the point where there’s a secession of aggressions on both sides.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) said “there was certainly no pressure that I’m aware of” from leadership on Meeks to scrap the letter.
Apart from arms sales, the United State supports Israel with $3.8 billion in security assistance annually, as set in a 10-year memorandum of understanding that was signed by the Obama administration in 2016 and entered into force in 2018. The United States is supposed to provide $3.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing funds and $500 million in missile defense assistance each year of the deal.
Even before the current conflict, McCollum proposed a bill that would bar U.S. funding to Israel from being used to support “military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment” of Palestinian children, property seizures and forcible evictions in the occupied Palestinian territories or the deployment of personnel or equipment to annex territory in the West Bank.
Sanders, for his part, tweeted Sunday that “we must also take a hard look at nearly $4 billion a year in military aid to Israel.”
“It is illegal for U.S. aid to support human rights violations,” he added.
Mike Lillis contributed.