Biden Threatens to Withhold Weapons to Israel Over Rafah Invasion

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U.S. President Joe Biden said he would halt additional shipments of offensive weapons to Israel if the country launched a ground invasion of Rafah, decrying the potential loss of civilian life as “just wrong.”

“We’re going to continue to make sure Israel is secure in terms of Iron Dome and their ability to respond to attacks that came out of the Middle East recently,” Biden said in an interview Wednesday with CNN, referring to air-defense weaponry. “But it’s, it’s just wrong. We’re not going to—we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells.”

The remarks came after the U.S. paused delivery of about 3,500 bombs to Israel—including 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) explosives that could cause massive damage in the densely packed southern Gaza city of Rafah—amid mounting frustration over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war in Gaza. The move marked the Biden administration’s most serious signal of displeasure over the conduct of the ongoing war against Hamas.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden said.

Netanyahu hasn’t publicly responded but Israeli officials made clear their displeasure. Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, used a heart emoji to describe what Hamas would think of Biden’s decision.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Rafah must be attacked and “the sooner the better.”

“We simply have no choice as this war is an existential one and anything other than complete victory will put the existence of the Jewish state in danger,” he said.

Read More: The Coming Showdown Over Rafah

Earlier Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. is reviewing “other potential weapon systems.” 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.

Read More: Hamas Leader Says Israel Killing His Family Won’t Affect Ceasefire Negotiations

“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 U.S. 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.

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 U.S., killed 1,200 people and abducted about 250 when its fighters stormed into southern Israel from Gaza.

The U.S. 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 U.S. and warned that it could jeopardize the negotiations at a crucial moment, according to a person briefed on the discussions. The Israelis also told U.S. 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, U.S. officials have signaled they would accept a more surgical, targeted campaign. Biden told CNN that Israel’s actions in Rafah—including air strikes near border areas—had not yet crossed the line.

“They haven’t gone into the population centers. What they did is right on the border. And it’s causing problems with, right now, in terms of—with Egypt, which I’ve worked very hard to make sure we have a relationship and help,” he said.

Biden told Netanyahu last month, following the killing of World Central Kitchen aid workers in an Israeli strike, that ongoing U.S. support for the war would depend on new steps to protect civilians.

Read More: The U.S.-Israel Spat Over Rafah Is a Distraction

“I’ve made it clear to Bibi and the war cabinet: They’re not going to get our support, if in fact they go on these population centers,” Biden said Wednesday, referencing the Israeli prime minister’s nickname.

The U.S. also stopped far short of halting all military aid to Israel. The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. diplomat who’s now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

At the same time, he said, other developments could further strain the U.S.-Israel relationship, including a government memorandum due this week that outlines whether the U.S. 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.”

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