The Gaza war puts a spotlight on the long pipeline of US weapons to Israel

In the fall of 2016, the Obama administration signed a major military agreement with Israel that committed the United States to giving the country $38 billion in weapons over 10 years.

“Continued delivery of the world's most advanced weapons technology will ensure that Israel has the ability to defend itself against all threats,” President Barack Obama said.

The deal was not controversial at the time. It was a period of relative calm for Israel, and few officials in Washington expressed concern about how American weapons might one day be used.

Now that military aid package, which guarantees Israel $3.3 billion a year for the purchase of weapons, along with another $500 million a year for missile defense, has become a flashpoint for the Biden administration. A minority of lawmakers in Congress, supported by liberal activists, are calling for President Biden to limit or even halt arms shipments to Israel over its military campaign in Gaza.

Biden has been sharply critical of what he once called “indiscriminate bombing” in Israel's war campaign, but has refused to place limits on US military aid.

The United States and Israel have had close military relations for decades, spanning several Democratic and Republican administrations. Israel purchased much of its critical equipment from the United States, including fighter jets, helicopters, air defense missiles, and guided and unguided bombs, which were dropped on Gaza. The legislation requires the U.S. government to help Israel maintain military superiority – or its “qualitative military advantage” – over other Middle Eastern nations.

The process of delivering weapons to Israel is opaque, and the path to the country is long. The United States sent tens of thousands of weapons to the country after the October 7 killings by Hamas attackers, but many were approved by Congress and the State Department long ago and financed with money mandated by the US agreement. 'Obama era, known as the MoU agreement.

“At all times, the results of these sales are constantly happening,” said Dana Stroul, who recently left his post as the Pentagon's top official for Middle East affairs.

Biden has the power to limit any deliveries of foreign weapons, even those previously approved by Congress. Far from cutting Israel off, however, he is pushing a request made shortly after the October 7 attacks for $14 billion in additional arms aid to the country and U.S. military operations in the Middle East. The money has been blocked in Congress amid disputes over aid to Ukraine and U.S. border security and faces growing Democratic concern.

Due to a legal loophole, the State Department is not required to inform Congress and the public of some new arms orders placed by Israel since October 7 because they fall below a certain dollar value. Congressional officials have criticized the secrecy, which is at odds with the Biden administration's public fanfare over weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

After the Hamas attacks, State Department officials continued to authorize weapons shipments to Israel in the form of tranches of orders, or what officials call “cases,” previously approved by the department and Congress – often years ago , and often for delivery in batches over years. a long period. Officials describe this step as pro forma. The authorizations have occurred almost daily in recent weeks and are in line with Biden's policy of giving full support to Israel.

But on Thursday, Biden hinted at a possible change. In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden warned that U.S. policy could change if Israel does not take more action to protect civilians and aid workers in Gaza, according to a White House summary of the conversation.

Israel regularly receives weapons from the US Department of Defense, as well as directly from American weapons manufacturers. Larger gun orders are often fulfilled over the years in smaller batches of specific items. In these cases, weapons buyers like Israel turn to the US government saying they are ready to pay part of the order.

When the Defense Department supplies weapons – which include the most expensive weapons systems – the State Department tells the Pentagon to issue a letter of acceptance to the buyer. That authorization is often a pro forma step, and the buyer's signature means there is now a legal contract to fulfill that part of the larger order.

The State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which handles foreign defense dealings and arms transfers, typically acts within two days of hearing a buyer's compliance request to tell the Defense Department to issue the letter. If defense officials decided to solve the case by placing an order with a U.S. weapons manufacturer, assembly and shipping would normally take years.

For Israel's immediate needs since October 7, defense officials have drawn on U.S. military stockpiles, including one in Israel.

Israel and other nations also sign contracts directly with American weapons manufacturers. These orders go through a State Department review (and occasionally a Congressional review, depending on the price). The State Department routinely issues four-year export licenses to companies and provides less public information on trade orders.

Israel is awaiting State Department approval for 24,000 assault rifles requested before Oct. 7 — a direct trade order that has caught the attention of some department officials and lawmakers due to Israeli settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Since October 7, Israel has asked the United States to speed up the filling of cases based on long-existing orders, US officials said. State and Pentagon officials complied.

Given the politics surrounding Israel, any change would have to come from Biden.

Recent compliance requests from Israel – and subsequent withdrawals from US stockpiles – have included munitions ranging from 250 to 2,000 pounds of bombs. Many cases involve 500-pound bombs, said one U.S. official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity and opacity around weapons sales.

Part of what Israel has requested since October 7 is intended to strengthen its defenses against actors beyond Hamas, including Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias in the region, as well as Iran itself. U.S. officials say one reason for their reluctance to limit arms sales to Israel is the risk of weakening its deterrence against these enemies.

Shortly before seven World Food Kitchen aid workers were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Monday, State Department officials told the Pentagon to send a letter of acceptance to Israel for a crate of ammunition, U.S. officials said.

This batch follows other shipments sent to Israel over the years to fulfill large ammunition orders approved by Congress and the State Department in both 2012 and 2015, US officials said.

In rare cases, an assistant secretary of state has asked department officials to refrain from telling Pentagon counterparts to issue a letter of acceptance because of concerns about the client country, said Josh Paul, who resigned from the policy office -military of the department in October to protest. Mr. Biden's war policy.

“They can say, 'You know what, we've changed our minds,'” Paul said, noting that senior U.S. officials can intervene at any time before the client receives a title to the property.

Since October 7, Israel has placed new orders. The State Department only needs to alert Congress when the price exceeds a certain threshold. This amount varies depending on the country and the type of military aid. If Israel orders a major weapons system, the department only tells Congress if the tranche is worth more than $25 million.

Congressional officials are pushing the State Department to give them more information about orders that fall below the price threshold.

However, at least three of Israel's new orders have crossed the threshold required for congressional review – and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has crossed it twice. Last December, Blinken invoked rare emergency authority to avoid legislative review and pass two of those orders worth a total of $253 million, for tank ammunition and artillery shells. The Pentagon then drew on US stockpiles to quickly send them to Israel.

The State Department reported to Congress in January about a third: an $18 billion order of F-15 jets that Israel placed after Oct. 7. The department is seeking approval from four lawmakers on two congressional committees with oversight of weapons transfers. Two Republicans approved the order in January, a U.S. official said, and two Democrats apparently have not so far.

The Biden administration is pressuring Democratic lawmakers to pass the order, after which the State Department will officially notify it. The order is one of the largest to come from Israel in recent years. The first jets will not be delivered until 2029, an official said.

And Israeli officials are expected to place an order for F-35 jets soon, U.S. officials said.

Martin Indyk, special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the Obama administration, said that “the problem with this American generosity is that over the years it has fostered a sense of entitlement among Israelis.”

Israel's dependence on the United States has grown “exponentially because its deterrent capacity collapsed on October 7,” he said, stressing that Israel would need the U.S. military to repel major attacks by Hezbollah or Iran. The Biden administration must use this leverage to shape the Israeli government's behavior, she added.

Within the State Department, there has been some dissent over arms transfers, reflected in three cables sent to Blinken last fall and in an internal exchange after a recent White House move.

In February, Biden issued a national security memorandum requiring all recipients of U.S. military aid to provide written pledges that their forces will comply with international law. The move was intended to defuse growing pressure in Congress.

Critics say the operation adds little to current U.S. requirements that recipients of military aid observe international and humanitarian law.

After Israel made its assurances last month, officials at the two State Department bureaus dealing with human rights and refugees expressed concerns to Blinken about Israel's commitment, a U.S. official said. But Blinken accepted Israel's assurances.

Speaking in general terms, Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, said last month that when it comes to Israel, US officials “have had ongoing assessments of their compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *