Continued Arms Transfers from US to Israel Raise Questions Despite Ceasefire Agreement

Continued Arms Transfers from US to Israel Raise Questions Despite Ceasefire Agreement

Any sense that a US abstention on a UN ceasefire resolution signalled a radically different approach to the Gaza war by the Biden administration lasted only four days.

The UN security council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire, a hostage release and large-scale delivery of food aid, was passed last Monday. By Friday, the Washington Post was reporting on the latest consignment of billions of dollars worth of US bombs and planes for Israel.

The only hesitation, according to a source familiar with the procedure, was a delay of a few days in processing approval of 1,800 MK-84 2,000lb (907kg) bombs, which can flatten an apartment block and leave an 11-metre deep crater.

It is a devastating weapon that has reportedly been used frequently by the Israeli air force, playing a significant role in the estimated 33,000 death toll in Gaza since October.

The news that the nearly $4bn a year arms pipeline from the US to Israel remained in full uninterrupted flow drew a furious reaction from critics, who pointed to the irony of the Biden administration urging a ceasefire and the delivery of food aid into Gaza while supplying the weapons that fuel both the war and the humanitarian crisis.

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid over someone’s tiny finger cut while you’re continuing to stab them in the chest,” Rae Abileah, a Jewish American peace activist, said.

As a catastrophic famine begins to take hold in Gaza, administration officials have faced questions almost daily why continued US military aid is not being made conditional on a change of Israeli behaviour to limit the civilian death toll and significantly expand aid delivery.

The stock response has been that the US administration, while urging Israel to do more to protect the civilians of Gaza, should do nothing to limit Israel’s ability to defend itself, a touchstone of US foreign policy for more than half a century.

Democrats of all hues, whether they support the current policy or not, say that a change of course by the Biden administration on arms supplies is highly unlikely, for both policy and political reasons.

“He is not going to do it. He fundamentally believes Israel has a right to defend itself, and he believes that in his heart,” said a former senior Biden administration official of the president, adding: “There is zero probability in my view.”

Joe Biden’s personal sense of commitment to Israel, cemented over decades of close contact with Israeli leaders, is a large part of the reason his administration is so resistant to change.

“Biden considers himself to be part of Israel’s story, he has been involved for so long,” said Aaron David Miller, a former state department negotiator on the Middle East now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A key moment to watch, Miller suggested, would be on 8 May, when the state department is due to issue a formal report on whether Israel is in compliance with international humanitarian law.

“I would be stunned if the administration made a judgment that the Israelis are out of compliance – in large part because Gaza is not the only issue,” Miller said.

Administration officials point to the fact that a major new war has not so far been ignited with Hezbollah in Lebanon as a success for US diplomacy, but the constant exchange of fire over Israel’s northern border is a reminder that the threat is still festering. Most observers expect a substantial conflict within a year.

Hezbollah would present a much more serious military challenge than Hamas, with a reputed arsenal of more than 100,000 missiles and rockets.

“If you begin this process of conditioning weapons, it will be seen as a very strong message to the world community that America no longer has Israel’s back,” the former senior official said.

“Hamas is the least of Israel’s problems. Putting conditions on arms would be a message to Hezbollah, to the Iranians, and the Syrians and the Houthis, who are looking around and trying to see if they can break Israel apart.”

The Biden administration also believes that conditionality would not work as leverage on Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition, which galvanises its core supporters by defying Washington.

“The idea that the Israelis would simply roll over and say: we give up? I don’t buy it,” Miller said. “It’s not just Netanyahu. It’s the entire government, it’s the public, which does not prioritise aid deliveries. They have not been exposed to the appalling humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.”

The Israeli government would not just ignore US signals, political observers say. Netanyahu would go further, most likely coming to the US to make common cause with Republicans, and imply that Biden had betrayed Israel in the face of terrorism.

Netanyahu did the same to Barack Obama in 2015 when Republicans invited him to address a joint session of Congress. The current speaker, Michael Johnson, has said he plans to invite Netanyahu again at the height of an election year, an election in which the Israeli leader clearly favours Donald Trump.

At home, Biden’s material support of Israel has alienated Arab-Americans, other minorities, young and progressive Democrats, and as a result has jeopardised his prospects for winning the key swing state of Michigan at the very least, and with it possibly the whole general election.

A policy U-turn now would not be guaranteed to win those votes back, while it would risk alienating the instinctively pro-Israel parts of the Democratic coalition.

“Within the Democratic coalition, there’s a very strong group of people, primarily American Jews, who would want a different government in Israel, but remain committed to the support of Israel,” Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said.

The last president to threaten to block weapons supplies to Israel was Republican Ronald Reagan, while the last Democratic president to seriously alienate Jewish Americans in his own party was Jimmy Carter, who authorised secret contacts in 1979 with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and paid an electoral price the following year, losing the 1980 election.

“There are many key states, like Pennsylvania or Arizona, that have a small but sizable Jewish constituency,” Olsen said.

Progressive Democrats argue that the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe, and the implications of potential US complicity in it, render such traditional political calculations obsolete. The sheer scale of the tragedy makes the unthinkable thinkable, they say.

“I think President Biden has surrounded himself with a lot of people who are hawkish, who are deeply aligned with the rightwing lobby of Aipac [American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main Israeli lobby in the US],” Usamah Andrabi, communications director for Justice Democrats, said. “He should instead align himself with the voters that got him elected in the first place.”

Andrabi added: “At a certain point, the administration and our party have to ask ourselves, what are we willing to be complicit in?”

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