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Business News/ News / World/  Biden Widens Rift With Israel in Move That Paused Bomb Shipments
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Biden Widens Rift With Israel in Move That Paused Bomb Shipments

President Joe Biden’s decision to hold off supplying about 3,500 bombs to Israel was the culmination of months of rising frustration over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war in Gaza — and his administration may not be done yet.

Biden Widens Rift With Israel in Move That Paused Bomb ShipmentsPremium
Biden Widens Rift With Israel in Move That Paused Bomb Shipments

President Joe Biden’s decision to hold off supplying about 3,500 bombs to Israel was the culmination of months of rising frustration over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war in Gaza — and his administration may not be done yet.

The US acknowledged this week that it had halted the shipment, which including 2,000-pound explosives that could cause massive collateral damage in the densely packed southern Gaza city of Rafah, which Israel has said it’s determined to invade. It marked the Biden administration’s most serious signal of displeasure over the conduct of the ongoing war against Hamas. 

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US is reviewing “other potential weapon systems" if needed. A congressional aide and an administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said another pending arms sale has been under review for months — a potential $260 million sale between Boeing Co. and Israel for as many as 6,500 tail-kits to convert unguided bombs into GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Yet even as tension mounts, Biden administration officials and former officials said the moves had a clearly defined goal: exert as much pressure as possible on Israel to scale back or abandon an invasion of Rafah while being careful not to make a total break with Netanyahu’s government. 

The administration also wants to preserve space for negotiators who have convened in Cairo this week to keep striving for a cease-fire and hostage deal between Israel and Hamas. Officials in those talks include Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, who is trying to bring home a deal whose prospects have whipsawed between hopeful and grim.

“The pause in arms shipments should not be read as a major break in the relationship," said Mara Rudman, who held senior Middle East diplomatic roles in the Obama and Clinton administrations and is now a professor at the University of Virginia. “Consider it as an element in the mix at a key inflection point — maximizing efforts to reach a cease-fire that brings out hostages, brings in humanitarian relief and starts to build a pathway to greater sanity all around."

It all comes at a critical juncture in the seven-month old conflict. Biden is facing domestic pressure for a solution with US elections just six months away. At the same time, Israel has begun strikes in Rafah that could either pressure Hamas leaders into signing a cease-fire deal or scuttle the negotiations entirely. 

Read More: US Arms Delay to Israel Brings Anxiety and Talk of Self-Reliance

Biden’s decision on the arms supplies marks one of the most significant moments of discord between Israel and its most important ally since Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault, which started the war. Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US, killed 1,200 people and abducted about 250 when its fighters stormed into southern Israel from Gaza.

The US has stepped up its criticism of Israel in recent months, saying it’s not doing enough to protect civilians and allow aid into the besieged Palestinian territory, parts of which the United Nations says are on the verge of famine. “There have been far too many casualties in this battle space," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in congressional testimony Wednesday. Israel’s bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza have killed almost 35,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. 

Biden’s decision was immediately assailed by the Israelis, who privately expressed deep frustration to the US and warned that it could jeopardize the negotiations at a crucial moment, according to a person briefed on the discussions. The Israelis also told US officials that pressure should be put on Hamas, not on Israel, said the person, who also asked not to be named to speak freely about private discussions. 

It was also assailed by Republican lawmakers in Washington, who accused the administration of sending the wrong message to Hamas and other Iran-backed militant groups such as Hezbollah.

The pauses “call into question your pledge that your commitment to Israel’s security will remain ironclad," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Mike Johnson said in a joint letter to Biden Wednesday. “Daylight between the United States and Israel at this dangerous time risks emboldening Israel’s enemies and undermining the trust that other allies and partners have in the United States."

While the administration has warned against a large-scale Israeli move on Rafah, where there are intact battalions of Hamas fighters, US officials have signaled they would accept a more surgical, targeted campaign. Biden told Netanyahu last month, following the killing of World Central Kitchen aid workers in an Israeli strike, that ongoing US support for the war would depend on new steps to protect civilians.

The US also stopped far short of halting all military aid to Israel. The US recently signed a foreign-aid package that contains billions of dollars of fresh assistance for Israel. The paused bomb shipment isn’t connected to those funds, Austin said. Arms transfers that are under review were drawn from previously appropriated money, and the White House is committed to ensuring Israel gets all the new national security aid, he said.

While the administration’s actions this week might represent the toughest US stance on Israel’s behavior so far, it’s still been handled in a way that shows both sides want to keep the relationship on solid ground, according to Gerald Feierstein, a veteran US diplomat who’s now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. 

At the same time, he said, other developments could further strain the US-Israel relationship, including a government memorandum due this week that outlines whether the US believes Israel violated international humanitarian law in Gaza.

“We still see the administration not being willing to risk an open break or an open confrontation with the Israelis," he said. “A lot of it just depends on how things play out in Rafah and whether it gets worse." 

With assistance from Tony Capaccio and Erik Wasson.

This article was generated from an automated news agency feed without modifications to text.

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Published: 09 May 2024, 03:11 AM IST
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