Lawmakers who wanted to protest the sale believe its timing sent the wrong message when the White House has resisted an aggressive ceasefire push in the Middle East.
A group of senior House Democrats on Tuesday backed off a burgeoning effort to push for a delay in the Biden administration's latest weapons sale to Israel amid intensifying violence in the region, further underscoring the intraparty rift over U.S.-Israel relations.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said he decided against requesting that President Joe Biden delay the $735 million arms sale after the White House offered to hold an “informational session” for lawmakers on Wednesday.
It was a reversal for Meeks, who convened an emergency meeting Monday evening about the administration’s approval for the arms transfer to Israel. During that meeting, Democrats had agreed that they would send a letter to the White House seeking a postponed sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, hoping to pressure the Israeli government to enter into a ceasefire as it continues to pummel Palestinian militants in Gaza.
“What we wanted to do is to have a dialogue,” Meeks said on Tuesday. “The purpose of the letter initially was to make sure that there was dialogue.”
A spokesperson for the committee said Meeks wanted to “create an opportunity for members to engage in a candid conversation with the administration about the arms sale,” adding that a letter is “no longer necessary” given the White House’s engagement.
But Democratic sources briefed on the meeting took issue with Meeks' reasoning, contending that the intent of the letter was not to simply secure a meeting or a briefing from the administration. Democratic lawmakers who wanted to protest the sale believed that its timing sent the wrong message when the administration has resisted an aggressive push for a ceasefire.
The arms "wouldn’t be sent for months anyway,” said one lawmaker who was in the meeting. “The question is whether it would be wise to announce licensing now while the bombing is ongoing and we are trying to encourage a ceasefire.”
The U.S.-Israel relationship has openly vexed House Democrats in recent years, as more progressives speak out in favor of the Palestinian cause after decades of lockstep bipartisan support for the Israeli government. Among those outspoken liberals is Congress’s first Palestinian-American lawmaker, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who was caught on camera talking with Biden as the president arrived in her home state Tuesday.
And Israel's military campaign in Gaza against Hamas in retaliation for the terror group’s rocket attacks within its borders has cast a bright light on Democrats' deep-set divisions over the U.S.' biggest ally in the Middle East.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said party leadership put no pressure on Meeks to abandon the letter. He said it seemed “appropriate that those conversations be allowed to happen, and then we’ll see what takes place.”
Indeed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday became the latest top Democrat to push for a ceasefire, using language stronger than the Biden White House's.
“Now, after more than a week of hostilities, it has become even more apparent that a ceasefire is necessary," Pelosi said in a statement. "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."
The civilian death toll from the conflict continued to rise on Tuesday, with Israel resisting calls for a ceasefire as it seeks to degrade Hamas’ capabilities in Gaza. Biden has faced growing pressure from Democrats to push Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to mutual cessation of hostilities, but the U.S. has vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for that outcome.
Congress has the authority to block weapons sales like the one that was approved for Israel, but the review window closes at the end of the week, making it impossible for lawmakers to act in time — though the Foreign Affairs Committee was notified of the sale on May 5.
Some Democrats have defended the arms sale to Israel, noting that it was in the works for months and that it’s a sale from a private company rather than a military transfer. The transaction was approved as a direct commercial sale, rather than a foreign military sale.
Those Democrats supporting the on-time sale also said the precision-guided nature of the machinery was important in order to reduce civilian casualties as Israel targets Hamas assets.
“The JDAMs are designed to make weapons precise. In this conflict, that would seem to me to be a reasonable transfer,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said. “Frankly, this is not a mercy resupply. This was something they ordered routinely.”
Lara Seligman contributed to this report.
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/18/democrats-biden-israel-arms-sale-489283