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Amid violence in Mideast, Democrats torn over proposed weapons sale to Israel

Some Democrats want to block or delay the sale, but others are trying to come up with a compromise

A trend of congressional Democrats becoming more willing to publicly criticize Israel became more pronounced over the past week even as the vacillating responses by senior party leaders underlined just how fraught the issue remains.

Emblematic of the dynamic was the pivot made in the last day by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory W. Meeks over how to respond to a proposed sale of precision weapons technology to Israel.

In early May, before the latest outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas, the State Department gave the House Foreign Affairs Committee informal notice of a planned sale of a $735 million package of guidance kits that can be used to convert dumb bombs into precision targeted weapons, according to informed congressional aides. The Washington Post was the first to report on the proposed sale.

But as the violence — which as of Tuesday had killed roughly 200 Palestinians and 10 Israelis — worsened over the weekend, Meeks became concerned about the proposed arms sale and on Monday evening convened an “emergency” virtual meeting of Democratic committee members to discuss a path forward.

Already, some committee members, like Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, had come out against the weapons sale, worried about the signal it would send.

[White House confirms Biden will keep embassy in Jerusalem]

“It would be appalling for the Biden administration to go through with $735 million in precision-guided weaponry to Netanyahu without any strings attached in the wake of escalating violence and attacks on civilians,” Omar said in a statement Monday, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s far-right government. “If this goes through, this will be seen as a green light for continued escalation and will undercut any attempts at brokering a ceasefire.”

During the call, Meeks heard from Democrats concerned about the weapons sale and said he would write a letter to the Biden administration requesting a pause in the proposed sale to give the State Department and lawmakers a chance to re-examine the details, according to two House staffers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

But then Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., a longtime staunch supporter of Israel, told reporters Meeks would not be sending the letter and would instead engage in informal discussions about the matter.

Meeks separately told reporters the purpose behind the letter could be achieved through other means and said he would be meeting with administration officials on Wednesday to discuss his concerns.

“The purpose of the letter initially was to make sure that there’s dialogue, conversation,” he said. “We’re going to have a meeting with the administration tomorrow where the issues and the questions that one may have will be able to be asked, and that was the purpose of considering the letter.”

Added a House Foreign Affairs spokesman in a statement: “The chairman’s intention behind a possible letter was to create an opportunity for members to engage in a candid conversation with the administration about the arms sale. A letter is no longer necessary given that the White House has now agreed to engage with members at the highest level on their concerns, and the administration’s broader strategy on gaining a peaceful resolution to this conflict.”

Asked about the timeline of the proposed munitions sale and whether it would be reassessed in light of the worsening civilian death toll, a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on “internal deliberations or communications with the Hill” but said “we remain deeply concerned about the current violence and are working towards achieving a sustainable calm.”

Speaking to reporters in Reykjavik, Iceland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s understated approach toward trying to resolve the conflict as well as its decision to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire and criticized the deaths of civilians. Blinken argued such a resolution was unlikely to “actually advance the goal of ending the violence.”

“We are engaged in quiet but very intensive diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate and end violence and then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake,” Blinken said.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters he was glad Meeks wasn’t calling for a halt to the weapon sales, arguing that to do so would have “been a sign of weakness to … our biggest ally in the region, that’s Israel.”

“It was sort of a given that it was going to get approved,” McCaul continued. “And I think with Hamas, the violence going on now, I think the left progressives have given [the] chairman a bit of a hard time about his support for Israel, but I’m glad he’s holding firm on it.”

Multiple House and Senate aides said that with the Israeli weapon sale so far along in its development, they see little chance of it being halted despite the concerns about how the weapons could lead to more civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip.

Though opposing Democrats have some tools at their disposal under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, such as the ability to carry out a vote to disapprove of the weapon sale once Congress is formally notified of it, they almost certainly lack the majorities needed in both chambers to clear such a joint resolution. 

Progressive Democrats would be unlikely to try to mount such a direct challenge to the Biden administration when it would likely fail while also dividing their caucus amid complicated negotiations on a range of domestic legislative priorities, such as how to pass trillions of dollars in new infrastructure spending.

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