Sunday, May 12, 2024

Biden's Israel arms pause

 Joe Biden has announced that he will withhold arms shipments to Israel in response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to attack Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza. Many Republicans are critical of the decision and compare it to Donald Trump’s interruption of aid to Ukraine, an action that resulted in his first impeachment.

Specifically, President Biden said that he would pause shipments of weapons that are being used offensively in Gaza such as bombs and artillery shells. He has said that shipments of defensive weapons will continue. 

Aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal area of Gaza City, 9 October 2023 (Wafa (Q2915969/APAimagesWikimedia)

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“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. “But it’s, it’s just wrong. We’re not going to – we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells.”

The president emphasized, “We’re not walking away from Israel’s security. We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.”

At about the same time, CNN reported that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that the US already paused a shipment of 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs over concern about the use of the bombs in Gaza’s densely populated areas. Austin said that a final decision on the shipment had not been made but that the shipment was not part of the recently passed aid package. 

“My final comment is that we are absolutely committed to continuing to support Israel in its right to defend itself,” Austin said.

At this point, it seems that the Biden Administration’s main difference with Netanyahu is over the prosecution of the war in Gaza, not over Israel’s right to act defensively or retaliate when attacked. That is a common view in the international community. 

Whatever your opinion on Israel’s strategy, it is apparent that the war in Gaza has resulted in a humanitarian nightmare. Hamas is ultimately responsible for the war, and much has been made of Israel’s stringent rules of engagement that are designed to minimize needless civilian casualties, yet it is also apparent that Israel has killed untold thousands of innocents. As Steve Berman noted back in December, Israel admitted that at least 15,000 Palestinians had been killed up to that point, a number that was similar to claims of the Gaza Health Ministry. 

Many of those Palestinian dead were not combatants. While it’s true to say that Hamas is deliberating causing many of these casualties by denying civilians the ability to take shelter or evacuate, it is also true that Israel has needlessly killed civilians through either errors and/or lax enforcement of its ROE. It is difficult to say that Israel is blameless when Israeli soldiers gunned down three of the same hostages that they are supposed to be rescuing. There is no way of knowing how many unarmed Palestinians have been killed under similar circumstances. I don’t believe all stories of Israeli atrocities, but I’m not prepared to discard them either. 

One question is whether Israel has gone too far in its attempts to root out Hamas. Another question is whether Israel’s priority should be the return of its hostages or the destruction of Hamas. At this point, I’m not sure how many hostages are left alive and, as I pointed out last year, Hamas is so deeply integrated into Gaza that the only way to wipe out Hamas would be to wipe out Gaza The world would not stand for that, and even if that strategy were pursued, it would not guarantee the end of Hamas. 

Two months ago, 70 percent of Jewish Israelis supported a move into Rafah, but more recently, a small majority (56 percent) favored reaching a deal to return the hostages over attacking the Hamas stronghold. Two-thirds of Israeli Arabs opposed the Rafah invasion. 

In the US, there is a similar pattern. Americans overwhelmingly supported Israel in the early days of the war, and as recently as March, Pew found that 58 percent believed that Israel had valid reasons for the war. The flip side is a Gallup poll from the same period that found that only about a third of Americans approved of Israel’s military action. A Wall Street Journal poll from March found that 40 percent believed that Israel’s response had gone too far. That number is likely higher two months later. 

These varying results can be explained by understanding that people, both in Israel and the US, support Israel and believe it has a right to retaliate against Hamas but also disagree with the way that Israel has responded. Put another way, people who are sympathetic to Israel’s plight can disagree with Netanyahu’s strategy. 

So that brings us back to Joe Biden. First, Biden’s pause differs from Trump’s interference with Ukraine aid in that there is a legitimate policy goal in stopping Israel from invading Rafah. In Trump’s case, the only point was Trump’s personal goal of having Ukraine investigate Hunter Biden. To be more specific, Trump didn’t even necessarily want a real investigation of the Bidens, he only wanted Ukraine to publicly announce such an inquiry

Biden’s move is not unprecedented. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan paused deliveries of F-16 fighters and cluster bombs to Israel because he opposed the Israeli operations in Lebanon, a war similar in many ways to today’s war in Gaza. Reagan also suspended a US-Israeli strategic agreement to punish Israel for its annexation of the Golan Heights, a territory captured in the Six Day War. 

While it is possible to legitimately question and critique Biden’s decision, it is apparent there were real policy reasons for him to initiate the pause. Does it benefit Biden politically? Quite possibly, but that is not a test of whether a policy is ethical. If it was, we would have to impeach every politician in office. The president’s job is to set foreign policy, and it is not unreasonable to acknowledge that politics impacts policy. Supporting Israel does not necessarily mean giving the country a blank check and never opposing its actions. 

Evidence of Biden’s commitment to Israel is that the president presided over the first incident in history that I am aware of in which American forces fired shots in defense of the Jewish state. The US shot down most of the missiles and drones that Iran had launched in a massive strike against Israel last month. 

But I do have questions. Back in 2020, the GAO determined that Trump’s impoundment of aid to Ukraine was unlawful. The nature of the aid to Ukraine was that it was congressionally approved and was subject to a mandatory timeline that required it to be disbursed before the end of the 2019 fiscal year. In the case of the aid to Ukraine, the GAO determined that Trump’s actions violated the 1974 Impoundment Control Act, which does not permit impounding funds for “policy reasons.”

There are obvious differences between the Biden pause and the Trump delay. For starters, Biden’s policy change has been public while Trump’s was done behind closed doors. Biden has also stated his reasons for the shift, and his pause has not gone beyond the fiscal year. 

What is not clear at this point is whether the aid to Israel is subject to the same conditions as the Ukraine aid. The measures were passed as part of different laws and these legal details matter. It is not clear whether the aid to Israel was merely authorized or mandated or whether the law specified the aid to be given. For example, could Biden meet the letter of the law by sending small arms ammunition rather than bombs and artillery shells that would be used offensively? 

Reuters reports that billions of dollars of aid to Israel are still in the pipeline, and we need more details to determine the legality of Biden’s hold. My guess is that the Biden White House has been more competent in assessing their authority to pause the aid and that Biden is more likely to listen to legal advice than Donald Trump. 

I don’t know if Biden’s action is the correct one. I am ambivalent about the war in Gaza. Retaliation was necessary after the October 7 attacks, but the human cost has been horrible. Regardless of whether Israel pushes into Rafah, I don’t expect Hamas to permanently disappear. 

It is fair to criticize Biden’s decision to withhold arms from Israel, but it is not accurate to say that the president is doing the same thing that Donald Trump was impeached for. Biden’s move, whether we agree with it or not, is justifiable and defensible. Trump’s impoundment of aid to Ukraine was not. 

It isn’t clear what the future of American aid to Israel will be, but I do know a country that can put American artillery shells to good use if they don’t go to Israel. 

From the Racket News

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