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Biden at a crossroads over Israel after weapons pause raises questions

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is at a crossroads on America’s military support for Israel in its war against Hamas that could have profound and lasting effects on his presidency and the relationship with the Mideast country.

US President Joe Biden listens to a question from reporters before boarding a limousine upon arrival at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in SeaTac, Washington, on May 10, 2024. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images) ORIG FILE ID:

Biden’s decision to pause a shipment of arms to Israel, along with a State Department report that concluded U.S. weapons were likely used to conduct operations in the Gaza Strip in ways that did not adequately protect civilians, marked a turning point for the Democratic president.

For the first time since the war began, Biden last week put conditions on U.S.-supplied weaponry: no more high payload bombs or artillery shells until the Israeli government abandons a plan to invade the densely populated city of Rafah.

“I think he’s had it in terms of his patience, of being defied, especially given the extraordinary goodwill he extended for months,” said Congressman Ro Khanna, a leading progressive on Capitol Hill and a Biden campaign surrogate.

Progressive frustration with Biden over the war that has lasted more than seven months has been at a fever pitch. Protests have engulfed college campuses. Young voters and Democratic lawmakers have warned Biden he’s facing a collapse in support at the ballot box. Sen. Bernie Sanders said the war could be his Vietnam.

U.S. military aid to Israel has been a significant source of the tension, with deep divisions emerging in the Democratic Party over how Biden should proceed.

Although most congressional Democrats voted to beef up assistance to Israel in April, in a letter to Biden earlier this month, 88 members of his party raised “serious concerns” with Israel’s conduct in Gaza. They pressed his administration to consider withholding some arms transfers.

After the president did exactly that, a smaller group of Democrats sent a letter to the White House questioning the decision. The lawmakers told his national security adviser they were “deeply concerned” about the message Biden was sending to Hamas and other Iranian-backed proxy groups. They want the Biden administration to explain itself at a classified briefing.

Republicans have challenged Biden with a similar critique. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul said in an interivew with USA TODAY on Monday, just after he concluded a meeting with Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., that Biden’s actions had “caused one of the biggest rifts” the United States has ever had with Israel.

“Not only does it greatly damage our long-standing relationship with Israel, but even beyond Israel, it has far reaching consequences,” McCaul, R-Texas, said of the weapons pause.

“That’s what I’m particularly concerned about, is the message it sends to our allies and friends that we can’t be trusted — and to our enemies it only emboldens and empowers for instance, Iran.”

U.S. officials have said that the size of the population in Rafah, where more than 1 million people had been taking refuge, drove the decision to suspend and review certain types of offensive weapons while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighs a major ground invasion. Biden stands by U.S. aid for Israel’s defense.

Biden’s advisers argue that war is at a different stage than it was in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people.

“We believe that they have put (an) enormous amount of pressure on Hamas, and that there are better ways to go after what is left of Hamas in Rafah than a major ground operation,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, more than 35,000 Palestinians have died in Gaza since the beginning of the conflict. The militant group has not provided the details for more than 11,000 of the reported casualties, and the United States, which does not have personnel on the ground, has not been able to verify its numbers.

Biden attempts to regain leverage

For months, the Biden administration had said it would not intervene in Israel’s military operations. It is up to Netanyahu to determine how to conduct the war against Hamas, top officials repeatedly said.

But with a pause on some offensive weapons as the U.S. waits to see how Netanyahu reacts, Biden effectively told the Israelis to accept his military advisers’ advice on how to defeat Hamas or else they will lose access to bombs, artillery shells and other munitions.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Biden’s actions are a reminder that the United States always conditions foreign aid.

“He is reminding the prime minister of Israel that when he exacerbates a humanitarian catastrophe, that the United States will not be a passive passenger in whatever direction Benjamin Netanyahu wants to drive through Rafah,” she said told USA TODAY. “We have been clear (on) our position on both a two-state solution and the importance of access to humanitarian relief. Benjamin Netanyahu ignores the United States at his peril.”

In response to the weapons pause, Netanyahu said Israel would “stand alone” if it had to in a speech last Thursday.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday that U.S. officials continue to confer with their Israeli counterparts about alternatives.

“We are talking to Israel about how to connect their military operations to a clear, strategic endgame, about a wholistic integrated strategy to ensure the lasting defeat of Hamas and a better alternative future for Gaza and for the Palestinian people,” he said.

Daniel Mouton, the director for defense and political-military policy for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council at the beginning of Biden’s administration, said the president’s recent moves amount to a change in tactic rather than a fulsome shift in U.S. policy toward Israel.

“I think if the administration had wanted to signal a broad shift, it had the tools to have communicated that,” Mouton, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, said.

The administration has tried to buy time for Israel’s government during a period that has been tougher for the country’s security across the region, he said. “And the administration has also I think clearly tried to buy sort of diplomatic and political top cover for the Israeli government. But I think we’re seeing the limits of what the White House is willing to do, which is why I think this is playing out publicly.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest outside a fundraiser event US President Joe Biden is attending in Seattle, Washington on May 10, 2024. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / … Show more   

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a Sunday appearance on “Meet the Press” demonstrated just how careful a line the administration is walking.

“President Biden brought together a coalition of countries that helped defend Israel. So, no one has done more than Joe Biden. At the same time, what we’ve seen over the last few months is a deep concern on our part about the possibility of a major military operation in Rafah, given the damage it would do to civilians,” he said.

Blinken said the U.S. still has not seen a credible plan to get them out of harm’s way or plans for what will happen when the war ends.

The State Department in a Friday report said that it has “serious” questions about the measures Israel takes to protect civilians. But without U.S. personnel on the ground, “it is difficult to assess or reach conclusive findings on individual incidents.”

That assessment fell short for progressives who had praised Biden several days earlier for conditioning arms transfers.

Allison McManus, managing director for national security and international policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that for many on the left there’s a “a sense of skepticism” about whether Biden intends to follow through on the weapons threat after the State Department decline to formally assign blame to Israel in its findings.

“We still don’t have a firm commitment that sending weapons in that context is against our laws and policies and we’re not going to do it,” she said.