Biden fast-tracks weapons sales to Israel, drawing fire from some in his own party

As Israel’s war against Hamas enters its third month, the Biden administration’s decision to bypass Congress and approve emergency weapons sales to its Middle East ally has drawn the ire of some lawmakers.

Congress was away for the winter recess and getting ready to ring in the new year when Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave the green light to sell $147.5 million worth of military equipment to Israel. It was the second time in a month that the administration used its emergency authority to bypass the 15-day congressional review period for foreign weapons sales.

A State Department spokesperson, who asked to speak on background, said Israel had made an emergency request for 155-millimeter artillery ammunition and ancillary equipment such as primers, fuses, and charges for the ammunition.

“Given the urgency of Israel’s defensive needs, the secretary notified Congress that he had exercised his delegated authority to determine an emergency existed, necessitating the immediate approval of the transfer,” the spokesperson said.

The decision to expedite arms sales to Israel without congressional oversight angered some lawmakers, notably members of Biden’s own party. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said, “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,” Kaine said in a statement. “We need a public explanation of the rationale behind this decision.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, another Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, echoed that sentiment, noting that “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,” Van Hollen said. “The public deserves answers.”

Israel has been fighting a war against the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip ever since the group led a brutal incursion into Israel on Oct. 7, killing thousands and taking hundreds of hostages.

The Biden administration and many members of Congress have thrown their weight behind Israel in the aftermath of the attack. But the full-throated support for Israel has started to wane as the civilian death toll from the war in Gaza continues to rise.

Health officials in Gaza claim that more than 22,000 people have died since the war began in October, and many of the dead are women and children. At least 80 percent of the population of Gaza has also been displaced, and the United Nations has warned that most of Gaza’s 2.4 million inhabitants are at risk of famine and disease.

In response to the looming humanitarian disaster, some members of Congress have started calling for the U.S. to cut all aid to Israel instead of fast-tracking it. On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a longtime ally of Israel who lived on an Israeli kibbutz during the 1960s, called for an end to U.S. funding for the “illegal and immoral war against the Palestinian people.”

“While we recognize that Hamas’ barbaric terrorist 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. “And, most importantly for Americans, we 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.”

The calls for oversight or an end to U.S. military assistance come as Congress returns from the winter recess to continue debating how to pass a national security supplemental funding bill that includes $14 billion in additional military aid for Israel.

The bill’s current draft includes a provision waiving the requirement that the administration notify Congress about arms transfers to Israel. But Senate Democrats, including Kaine and Van Hollen, have also introduced an amendment requiring the president to report to Congress on how the weapons transfers comply with U.S. and international law and how the Defense Department is working to reduce harm to civilians. The amendment could help address some of the concerns of progressives who say Israel is using U.S. military aid to commit war crimes.

Congressional support for the national security supplemental will be crucial if the administration is to continue transferring weapons to Israel. The U.S. shipments to Israel have all come out of existing U.S. stockpiles. That means Congress will need to appropriate more money if the Pentagon is to replace the equipment it has already sent to Israel.

Over the past several months, Washington has sent air-delivered precision munitions, such as small-diameter bombs, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions, a kit used to make unguided “dumb” bombs more precise. It has also sent tank ammunition. The supplemental funding bill would provide money for the Defense Department to replace those items and for Israel to purchase additional weaponry from U.S. defense contractors to replace their military stockpiles as the war drags on.

Michael Makovsky, a former special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the current CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said the U.S. should have pre-positioned precision-guided munitions in Israel years earlier if it wanted the country to have enough supplies to prosecute a long-term conflict.

Washington first established a weapons stockpile in Israel, known as the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel, or WRSA-I, in the 1980s so the U.S. could rapidly supply its forces in the Middle East.

Israel has also drawn from the stockpile’s supplies on certain occasions, and some critics have argued that the Biden administration isn’t being transparent about how much it is currently providing Israel from WRSA-I for the war in Gaza.

Meanwhile, some have started raising alarm bells that the WRSA-I stockpiles could run low. Shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, Rep. Chip Roy called on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to provide information about how much weaponry is still available in the stockpile.

“I request an assessment, either in public or classified form, of the current inventory of weapons in the WRSA-I to assist Congress’ ability to properly advance legislation in support of Israel,” Roy wrote in a letter to Austin on Oct. 26.

Makovsky said it was “obvious” Israel needed the stockpile rebuilt even before the Oct. 7 attack.

“The U.S. arms depot hasn’t been replenished that we know of since the Bush administration,” he said.

Increasingly, Israel’s leadership has signaled that it expects the war in Gaza to continue for the remainder of 2024. Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari said the country will adjust troop deployments for “prolonged fighting.” Israel plans to withdraw five battalions of reservists from Gaza and move into a new phase of the war.

The longer the war persists, however, the more assistance the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to request from Washington.

“The key thing is going to be how long this war goes on,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re going to be shooting a lot of munitions and taking equipment losses. Over time, there are going to be more and more announcements like what we’ve seen.”

Originally published in National Journal.