Senate Democrats scoff at Biden’s Israel arms sale

Senate Democrats scoff at Biden’s Israel arms sale

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Some of President Biden’s top Senate allies are criticizing the administration’s moves on Israel, including the latest approval of arms sales to the military that bypassed Congress while also calling on Israelis to wind down months of intense fighting.

Just before the new year, the Biden administration for a second time in a month approved a provision that would transfer weapons to the Israelis without congressional approval. But, top U.S. officials for weeks have publicly called on Israel to ensure civilians remain out of harm’s way as the death toll in Gaza rises into the tens of thousands.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, say the transfer of weapons to Israel without congressional oversight undermines transparency, marking the latest rift among Democrats when it comes to the Israel-Hamas war.

“The U.S. must not write a blank check for [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] war in Gaza and his right-wing government, which has demonstrated a gross disregard for Palestinian civilians,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told The Hill in a statement. “If the Biden administration won’t be transparent with Congress and the American people, Congress should act and close these loopholes for arm sales for Israel.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken approved the more than $147 million sale of equipment including fuses, charges and primers, which are needed for the 155 mm shells Israel already has. The administration announced the sale Friday, using an emergency authority some lawmakers said skirted an essential step.

“Congressional review is a critical step for examining any large arms sale. The Administration’s decision to repeatedly short-circuit what is already a quick time frame for congressional review undermines transparency and weakens accountability. The public deserves answers,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told The Hill.

The Biden administration, which had proposed an aid package that coupled money for Israel and Ukraine that Congress late last year could not advance, defended the sale.

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital to U.S. national interests to ensure Israel is able to defend itself against the threats it faces. This proposed sale is consistent with those objectives,” a spokesperson for the State Department said in a statement.

The spokesperson added that Congress was notified that Blinken “exercised his delegated authority to determine an emergency existed necessitating the immediate approval of the transfer” because of “the urgency of Israel’s defense needs.”

But the last few weeks has seen a marked increase in pressure by U.S. officials — several of whom have traveled to the region — in calling on Israel to ease up on its attacks in Gaza and focus on targeting Hamas while minimizing civilian casualties. While Biden’s pro-Israel stance has been steadfast since the deadly Oct. 7 attacks, rifts between Netanyahu, Biden and other U.S. officials have spilled into public view, especially when it comes to a post-war Gaza and the intensity of the fighting in the Palestinian enclave.

But, the second arms sale to Israel without congressional approval is making senators question the White House’s strategy and messaging.

The administration did get some key backing Wednesday from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the highest-ranking Jewish official, who indicated to reporters at the Capitol that Israel’s immediate need for the weapons required this action.

“The State Department believes, as I believe, that Israel needs to get the materials it needs to defend itself against Hamas,” Schumer said.

Others on the left, however, have grown increasingly skeptical with the Israelis, especially over their opposition to Netanyahu’s handling of the situation. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday called on lawmakers to withhold more than $10 billion in military funding for the country and argued that it would be used to keep up Israel’s “grossly disproportionate” and “immoral” war in Gaza.

“While we recognize that Hamas’ barbaric attack began this war, we must also recognize that Israel’s military response has been grossly disproportionate, immoral, and in violation of international law,” Sanders said in a statement.

Overall, a handful of Senate Democrats have come out against the arms sale, including Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.), Peter Welch (Vt.), Van Hollen and Warren. 

Kaine, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested in a statement that the American public needs more information about this sale.

“Just as Congress has a crucial role to play in all matters of war and peace, Congress should have full visibility over the weapons we transfer to any other nation. Unnecessarily bypassing Congress means keeping the American people in the dark. We need a public explanation of the rationale behind this decision — the second such decision this month,” he said in a statement.

Earlier in December, the Biden administration made the first rare move to bypass Congress to approve a weapons sale with an emergency determination. Blinken approved the sale to Israel of about 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition worth more than $106 million.

The first sale was also met with criticism from lawmakers, who argue that Congress typically has the authority to weigh in on weapons transfers and the ability to block them if necessary, leaving critics especially on the left flank of the president’s party piling up over the administration’s handling of the war.  

Biden is also under increasing pressure from progressives and other Democrats to call for a permanent cease-fire, a move that the administration argues would only help Hamas. 

Sanders, in response to the second arms sale, said that Americans “must understand that Israel’s war against the Palestinian people has been significantly waged with U.S. bombs, artillery shells, and other forms of weaponry.” 

He added that “the results have been catastrophic,” referring to reports via the Palestinian health ministry that more than 22,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes, two-thirds of whom being women and children.

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