House passes bill to undo Biden’s partial Israel weapons hold

House passes bill to undo Biden’s partial Israel weapons hold

The House on Thursday passed 224-187 a bill aimed at forcing President Joe Biden to reverse his recent hold on a shipment of some 3,500 air-to-ground munitions for Israel.

Biden withheld the munitions transfer, which includes 2,000- and 500-pound bombs, in April in protest of Israel’s decision to move ahead with its ongoing offensive in Rafah, which has already displaced an additional 450,000 Palestinians of the roughly 1.4 million people who have fled to the southern Gaza city since October.

The Israel Security Assistance Support Act, introduced by defense appropriations chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., would ban all presidential holds on arms transfers to Israel. It would withhold funds from the offices of the defense secretary, secretary of state, National Security Council and the White House’s Homeland Security Council until Biden certifies the U.S. has transferred the withheld equipment.

The bill also requires the prompt approval and delivery of all weapons transfers to Israel in fiscal 2024 and 2025, “including those for the Ministry of Public Security,” which is headed by far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir on Tuesday called for Israeli settlements in Gaza and the expulsion of Palestinians from the strip.

“The Biden administration is defying the will of Congress and withholding weapons shipments to Israel,” House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said at a Thursday press conference ahead of the vote. “We want the president to hear this loud and clear.”

“He said just not long ago that we had to have ‘ironclad’ support for Israel. Well, that’s what he previously proclaimed, but his actions are doing exactly the opposite,” he added. “This is a catastrophic decision with global implications. It is obviously being done as a political calculation.”

Despite a White House veto threat, some House Democrats joined forces with Republicans to vote in favor of the bill.

The White House’s veto threat argued the bill infringes on the president’s constitutional authorities.

“We strongly oppose attempts to constrain the president’s ability to deploy U.S. security assistance consistent with U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives,” the White House said.

“The bill is a misguided reaction to a deliberate distortion of the administration’s approach to Israel. The president has been clear: We will always ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself. Our commitment to Israel is ironclad.”

The bill is also unlikely to pass the Senate, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declining to hold a floor vote on it.

“The president has already said he’d veto it, so it’s not going anywhere,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday.

Biden told CNN last week “civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” referring to the withheld shipment of roughly 3,500 heavy air-to-ground munitions. He added that he’s “not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah” as Israel scaled up its offensive and seized the southern border crossing with Egypt.

Other arms transfers continue

Still, Biden continues to provide other offensive weapons as well as air defense systems to Israel. The Biden administration has transferred tens of thousands of munitions to Israel since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. Most of those were purchased through direct commercial sales, a portion of which are subsidized with U.S. cash assistance.

For instance, the State Department on Tuesday told Congress it wants to proceed with a roughly $1 billion foreign military sale to Israel consisting of around $700 million in tank ammunition, $500 million worth of tactical vehicles and $60 million of mortar rounds. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the pending sale.

While the delivery would not arrive in Israel for another two to three years, the sale could replenish many of the weapons now being used in Gaza.

Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, has placed his own hold on a separate $18 billion sale of Boeing-made F-15 fighter jets to Israel over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. If that sale is approved, Israel would not receive the aircraft until the end of the decade.

Meeks told Defense News he is still reviewing Biden’s proposed $1 billion sale for tank shells and armored vehicles, noting he has not yet decided to approve it.

“It’s best for me to go through it before making any comment or anything else,” said Meeks. “I had been concerned, as the president was, about 2,000-pound bombs.”

“That’s not contained therein as far as what they’re looking at. But I take all of these things very seriously.”

The Biden administration submitted a report to Congress last week on Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law and U.S. human rights laws in its Gaza operations.

The report found Israel may have used U.S.-supplied weapons to violate international humanitarian law, but stopped short of a conclusive determination. A conclusive determination would have required the Biden administration to suspend offensive military aid to Israel, as required under U.S. human rights laws.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who pushed the Biden administration to issue the report, said “it largely fails to meet the mark” of what was required in the White House’s February executive memorandum seeking assurances all U.S. military aid recipients — including Israel — would comply with human rights laws.

Van Hollen said in a statement the “report also indicates a disturbing pattern where the expertise and analyses of those working most closely on these issues at the State Department and at USAID have been swept aside to facilitate a predetermined policy outcome based on political convenience.”

Congress in April overwhelmingly passed an additional $14 billion in Israel military aid. Israel also receives an annual $3.8 billion in U.S. military aid via the regular appropriations process.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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