How Bad Is The US Weapons Freeze For Israel?

News Image By Shimon Sherman/ May 14, 2024
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The Biden administration confirmed that it was holding up a large weapons shipment over fears it would be used in an already ongoing Israeli operation in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Despite the critical strategic importance of the operation, the Biden administration had made clear that they strongly oppose any large-scale Israeli incursion in Rafah and would expand the weapons freeze should Israel seek to root out Hamas from its southern stronghold. 

This move had been under consideration for weeks, with some sources close to the White House claiming the announcement of the decision was timed to allow President Joe Biden to make his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech without being overshadowed by a policy decision that was likely to be perceived as harmful to the U.S.-Israel relationship.  

"As Israeli leaders seemed to approach a decision point last month on such an operation, we began to carefully review proposed transfers of particular weapons to Israel that might be used in Rafah," a White House official said.

White House officials revealed that the planned shipment was said to contain 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs, as well as multiple other types of ordinance. U.S. defense officials said they were concerned by Israel's broad use of 2,000-pound bombs in civilian areas. 

However, according to experts these concerns stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of combat in Gaza.

"The use of heavy ordinance is consistent with an operation targeting subterranean positions in a populated area," said John Spencer in an interview last week.

According to Spencer, Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, "Israel is fighting the most advanced and complex terror tunnel system ever encountered in modern combat, so their disproportionate use of 2,000-pound bombs is a response to their fighting environment."

The paused shipment is not the only military aid that has been denied or restricted in recent months. According to Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, other crucial military materiel has been frozen in congressional committees for months, including joint direct attack munitions (JDAMS), which convert dumb bombs into precision weapons, as well as tank rounds, mortars and armored tactical vehicles. Risch said some of these shipments have been waiting for approval since December, while usually, military aid to Israel goes through the approval processes in a few weeks. 

An $18 billion military transfer including dozens of Boeing F-15 aircraft has also been stuck in the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Gregory Meeks, top Democrat on the committee, said he awaits more information about how Israel would use the F-15s.

"It's enough of the indiscriminate bombing," Meeks said last month. "I don't want the kinds of weapons Israel has to be utilized to have more death. I want to make sure humanitarian aid gets in, and I don't want people starving to death."

Despite U.S. pressure, the government has made clear that the weapons freeze will not affect Israel's determination to go into Rafah.

"If Israel has to stand alone, we will stand alone," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a message last week. "During the War of Independence 76 years ago, we were few against many, we had no weapons, and there was an arms embargo on Israel, but with the strength of the soul, the bravery and the unity within us, we won," he added. 

According to Channel 12, military officials are committed to an offensive in Rafah even without U.S. backing and have communicated this to Washington in recent days.

Other experts note that despite these delays, billions of dollars worth of U.S. weaponry remains in the pipeline for Israel. 

"We should remember it is not the first time we have faced this type of situation, and that in the past we have been able to overcome our differences with the Americans," Ephraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy, told JNS. "We should hold a balanced evaluation of what has happened with U.S. policy, and we should try our best to sell the Israeli case in America," he added. 

"The U.S. didn't 'cut off' offensive weapons, these terms make it sound worse than it already is. This was a serious signal, but it has to be read clearly," said professor Chuck Freilich, former Israeli deputy national security adviser and currently a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

By current estimates, Israel will likely be able to carry out its operation in Rafah regardless of the U.S. weapons freeze.

"The IDF has armaments for the missions it is planning, including missions in Rafah. We have what we need," IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a press conference last week.

According to Inbar, however, "We can go into Rafah without the Americans, the question is what happens afterward." 

A further military implication of the shipment freeze is a reduction in Israel's capacity to target terror infrastructure and thereby minimize collateral damage. 

According to U.S. sources, a shipment of precise munitions and precise munition kits is also being held up. The proposed arms delivery includes MK-82 bombs, up to 6,500 KMU-572 JDAMs, that add precision guidance to bombs, small-diameter tail kits for unguided bombs made by Boeing, and FMU-139 bomb fuses. 

A further shipment of critical parts for the Israeli-made Spice ("Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective") bombs, which use electro-optical or infra-red systems to hit targets with high accuracy, meaning they can operate even in scenarios where GPS guidance is unavailable, is also being held up. Although these transfers were not due to arrive in Israel for many months, the lack of a stable resupply will likely limit Israel's ability to utilize such munitions in upcoming combat. 

Several U.S. military experts recently signed a letter to the White House in which they state that limiting Israel's access to precision bombs will likely "increase civilian casualties in the conflict."

Experts are further concerned that the growing daylight between the United States and Israel could have dire military implications for Israel in case of a second front in the north opening up, against the Hezbollah terror organization. "We need the Americans to also go into Lebanon so it is better if we can settle this issue," said Inbar. 

"There is a threat of Hezbollah, or Iran escalating because of the perception of America distancing itself," said Freilich. "The paused shipment doesn't affect combat at this level in Gaza, but a full-scale northern war will make what is happening in Gaza now seem like child's play, and will require a lot of munitions and ordnance," he added.

The Israeli government has so far downplayed the significance of the growing rift between D.C. and Jerusalem.

"The U.S. has so far provided security assistance to the State of Israel and the IDF in an unprecedented manner during the war," said IDF Spokesperson Hagari. "Even when there are disagreements between us, we resolve them behind closed doors," he stated. "Israel has security interests, but we are also aware of the interests of the U.S., and that's how we will continue to act." 

Netanyahu echoed the sentiment during a "Dr. Phil Primetime" interview that aired on Thursday. "We often have our agreements but we've also had our disagreements. We've been able to overcome them. I hope we can overcome them now, but we will do what we have to do to protect our country," he said.

Amid these developments, Israeli experts have increasingly been calling for Israel to expand its military manufacturing.

"Israel is a small country and we cannot be independent for a [while yet], but we need to work to increase our military manufacturing capabilities," said Inbar.

The domestic response in the United States to the weapons freeze may signal a more nuanced reality. 

"I think the ideological preferences of the progressives partially drive this, but also the presidential elections. Biden is paying an electoral price in America for adopting a more critical position towards Israel," Inbar told JNS. "I think there is room for American-Israeli discussions, at the same time I think the Biden administration might reevaluate the utility of such steps in their domestic electoral campaign. He doesn't only have to please the Arab population in Michigan; in my view, he made an electoral mistake," he added.

Inbar's view is confirmed by the wide outpouring of bipartisan criticism in the aftermath of the White House's decision. Twenty-six Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have signed a letter to Jake Sullivan, Biden's National Security Advisor, requesting a briefing on why the administration suspended the delivery of large bombs to Israel. 

"We are deeply concerned about the message the Administration is sending to Hamas and other Iranian-backed terrorist proxies by withholding weapons shipments to Israel, during a critical moment in the negotiations. With democracy under assault around the world, we cannot undermine our ally Israel, especially in her greatest hour of need," said the letter. 

Broad pressure could also be felt from the right, with House of Representatives speaker Mike Johnson calling the move "wholly unacceptable," and former CIA director Mike Pompeo calling it "indefensible" and "a betrayal of a close ally fighting a defensive war." 

Former President Donald Trump also made a statement in support of Israel.

Speaking at a rally in New Jersey on Saturday, Trump said, "This week, he [Biden] announced that he will withhold shipping weapons to Israel as they fight to eradicate Hamas terrorists in Gaza. It was shocking to hear him--even now, there are still American hostages being held by Hamas. Crooked Joe's actions are one of the worst betrayals of an American ally in the history of our country. I support Israel's right to win its war on terror."

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