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House Democrats, in disarray over arms sale to Israel, take complaints to Biden administration

Smoke billows from an Israeli airstrike Wednesday in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are expected to summon a senior Biden administration official to a high-stakes meeting as soon as Thursday to discuss a pending $735 million arms sale to Israel, as some members of the party’s liberal wing angrily oppose the United States sending its closest regional ally any more weapons it could use to strike Gaza.

Disclosure of the commercial sale, first reported this week by The Washington Post, prompted a backlash from many of Congress’s newest and most liberal Democrats, who have been vocal critics of what they view as American willingness to turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses Palestinians have experienced at the hands of Israel’s government. In recent days, they have excoriated the more politically moderate members of their party, who signed off on the transaction informally, for permitting such a large cache of munitions to be sent to Israel as it trades fire with Hamas in the worst fighting the disputed territory has seen in years.

The internal feud over whether to block the sale is unlikely to yield short-term results, as a majority of both the House and Senate would have to register a formal objection by Friday to stop the deal in its tracks. But it has exposed fissures in the Democratic Party that may lead to longer-term changes, as its members find themselves in uncharted territory: arguing about whether the United States should put new limits on its financial relationship with Israel.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants have fired rocket salvos in the most intense fighting in years. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

“The opening is unprecedented,” said Shibley Telhami, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland who has been tracking changing attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for more than a decade. “Whether it will turn into something more profound and enduring remains to be seen.”

Biden administration approves $735 million weapons sale to Israel

Over the past decade, Democrats’ approach to U.S.-Israeli politics has experienced fits and starts. The Obama administration went through a public falling-out with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the bulk of the pro-Israel lobby as it negotiated a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for rolling back sanctions. That tension took on a political bent when Republican John A. Boehner, the House speaker at the time, invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in 2015, though Obama declined to meet with the Israeli leader during that visit to Washington.

Opposing U.S. policy toward Israel became easier for congressional Democrats under the Trump administration, as the former president took the controversial steps of moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and reversing U.S. policy that settlement construction in the Palestinian territories violated international law. In 2019, more than 100 House Democrats signed a letter to Trump’s State Department objecting to the settlements move.

Netanyahu rebuffs Biden’s call for ‘significant de-escalation today’ as Israel, Hamas continue attacks

But Israel’s privileged status as a recipient of U.S. military aid, required by U.S. law to maintain a “qualitative military edge” over its Arab rivals, has long been treated as “untouchable,” in Telhami’s words. Not since 1991, when President George H.W. Bush held back promised loan guarantees to Israel until it halted settlement construction — and took a hit for it politically — has the U.S. government rolled back aid promised to Israel.

That trend is unlikely to change this week, despite pressure from rank-and-file House Democrats raising an alarm.

“I have serious concerns about the timing of this weapons sale, the message it will send to Israel and the world about the urgency of a cease-fire, and the open questions about the legality of Israel’s military strikes that have killed civilians in Gaza,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters this week.

Other panel Democrats were even more blunt about their opposition.

“Congress should be questioning the sales of these types of weapons to Israel — and any country in the world that has committed human rights abuses,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said via Twitter on Wednesday. “Congressional oversight on arm sales is long overdue.”

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), who was caught off-guard by the backlash, initially responded with a promise to ask the Biden administration to delay the sale. But on Tuesday, the House’s No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), told reporters that Meeks would not be sending the letter after all.

“The purpose of the letter initially was to make sure that there’s dialogue, conversation — we’re going to have a meeting with the administration,” Meeks said later, suggesting the planned meeting made such a missive moot.

Biden is increasingly at odds with other Democrats over Israel

It was unclear Wednesday whom the administration intends to put forward for the meeting with House Democrats. One possibility is the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Joey Hood, who is deeply experienced in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The discussion is unlikely, however, to precipitate any sort of change in policy, or reneging on this particular sale to Israel.

Officials at the State Department and with the Foreign Affairs Committee declined to discuss the matter.

Republicans have been all but unanimous in their firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, despite disproportionately large numbers of Palestinian deaths and injuries. This week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) even went so far as to accuse those seeking a cease-fire to end the bloodshed of “suggesting that there is moral equivalency” between Israel and Gaza’s government run by Hamas, which the United States has designated a foreign terrorist organization.

Democrats, too, are sorely divided over the issue. Though the detractors of the sale have been vocal, they do not make up a majority of the party, and many in the party — not just its leaders — believe that continuing to arm Israel is the right thing to do.

“We mourn the loss of innocent civilians, especially children, in Israel and Gaza. We also stand with our democratic ally in the face of >3,000 terrorist rockets,” Foreign Affairs Committee member Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said Tuesday on Twitter. “And the Biden Admin is right- we don’t block the sale of weapons to Israel as it defends itself against Hamas attacks.”