Congressional leaders allow arms sale to Israel after White House pressure

An Israeli army F-15 fighter jet flies over central Israel. (AFP)
An Israeli army F-15 fighter jet flies over central Israel. (AFP)

Summary

Senior Democrats had blocked the sale of F-15 fighters over concerns about civilian casualties in the Gaza war.

Two top Democratic leaders in Congress have unblocked the sale of 50 F-15 jet fighters to Israel, paving the way for a major weapons deal that had been held up over concerns about the killing of thousands of civilians in the war in Gaza.

The $18 billion sale is one of the largest arms deals with Israel in recent years, and comes as President Biden is facing calls from leaders in his own party to withhold American weapons in order to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept an end to the Gaza war. The administration also is urging Israel to de-escalate tensions along its northern border with Lebanon.

The sale of the warplanes, which was notified to Congress earlier this year, had been blocked by two of the four congressional leaders who sign off on major arms deals, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Any issues or concerns Chair Cardin had were addressed through our ongoing consultations with the Administration, and that is why he felt it appropriate to allow this case to move forward," said Eric Harris, a spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement.

The decision followed extensive White House pressure on congressional leaders to unblock the deal, according to officials familiar with the matter. If the sale is formally approved, the F-15s would likely be delivered in about five years, congressional officials said.

Meeks said in a statement he had been in talks with the White House about the sale and had “repeatedly urged the Administration to continue pushing Israel to make significant and concrete improvements on all fronts when it comes to humanitarian efforts and limiting civilian casualties."

The lifting of the congressional hold on the deal allows the State Department to formally notify Congress and proceed with the sale. The White House and the State Department declined to comment. The Israeli prime minister’s office also declined to comment.

More than 37,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, most of them civilians, Palestinian officials say. The figure doesn’t specify how many were combatants.

The U.S. has sent Israel tens of thousands of bombs, tank and artillery ammunition, precision weapons and air-defense equipment since the war began, often drawing on $23 billion worth of weapons transfers that have been previously approved by Congress.

The Biden administration in May paused a shipment of weapons that included 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs at a time when the White House was urging Israel to pull back from a full-scale assault on the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. 

More than a million Palestinian civilians were sheltering in the area at the time. Israel has since gone ahead with the operation, though U.S. officials say it has adjusted its tactics in response to White House concerns.

The administration separately took steps in May to proceed with the future transfer of more than $1 billion worth of armaments including tank ammunition, mortar rounds and vehicles for the Israeli military. Netanyahu is set to address Congress in July.

“I say it is enough of the indiscriminate bombing. I don’t want the kinds of weapons that Israel has to be utilized to have more death," Meeks said in an interview with CNN in April.

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