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Power Up: Biden administration approves $735 million weapons sale to Israel, raising red flags for some House Democrats

with Tobi Raji

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On the Hill

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Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the United States supported an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The White House initially said it would only support a cease-fire if both parties to the conflict choose to pursue one; President Biden urged a cease-fire late in the day on Monday. This article has been corrected.

FIRST IN POWER UP: The Biden administration has approved the sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, raising red flags for some House Democrats who are part of the shifting debate over the U.S. government’s support for the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Congress was officially notified of the proposed sale on May 5, three people based on Capitol Hill familiar with the notification told my colleague Karoun Demirjian and me. 

  • That was nearly a week before Hamas, the terrorism-designated organization that controls the Gaza strip began intense rocket attacks against Israel that have reportedly killed at least 10 Israelis. The rockets have been answered with ongoing Israeli airstrikes that have left nearly 200 Palestinians dead and sparked worldwide calls for diplomatic action. The crisis is the worst since a 2014 Hamas-Israeli war that lasted nearly two months.

The Biden administration initially avoided calling for an immediate cease-fire and has said that Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas — a position that a majority in Congress has previously supported. But a new generation of House Democrats more open to questioning Washington’s support of Netanyahu is raising some concerns. Some lawmakers want to know more about the new proposed sale, and its timing, suggesting it be used as leverage. 

  • “In the past week, the Israeli military's strikes have killed many civilians and destroyed the building that housed the Associated Press, an American company reporting on the facts in Gaza,” a Democratic lawmaker on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told us. “Allowing this proposed sale of smart bombs to go through without putting pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire will only enable further carnage. 

The administration is required to inform Congress of such sales, although official notification generally comes only after Congress has informally agreed. Once the formal notification is made, lawmakers have 15 days to object with a nonbinding resolution of disapproval. 

  • The bulk of the proposed sale is of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMS, kits that transform so-called “dumb” bombs into precision-guided missiles.
  • Israel, which has purchased substantial quantities of JDAMS in the past, has said the Gaza airstrikes are precision guided to avoid hitting civilians, but charged that Hamas uses civilians in the heavily populated enclave as human shields.
  • Former President Donald Trump vetoed three resolutions passed by Congress in 2019 to stop arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after the House and Senate voted to block the arms deals worth more than $8 billion.

A spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee confirmed that Congress was notified on May 5 of the commercial deal in which Boeing will provide the weapons to Israel. But some Foreign Affairs lawmakers were caught off guard over the weekend when they first learned of the sale, according to a source with knowledge of the private conversations. 

  • “We're lucky to catch this weapons sale, a Democratic aide who works on the committee told Power Up. “There's zero transparency on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and sensitive deals are regularly approved without scrutiny, the aide added of the committee chaired by Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.). 

“There's truth to the notion that there's major shifts in the party about how we rubber stamp Israel writ large,” a Democratic Senate aide told Power Up. The aide added it's unlikely debate over the sale will ultimately result in a resolution of disapproval from Congress. 

Still, the proposed arms sale is likely to further highlight the growing divide among Democrats over criticism of Israel: 

  • “Israel maintains a deep bench of staunch defenders in the Democratic leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who have all emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself … But a new crop of younger lawmakers willing to challenge the party’s pro-Israel orthodoxy has put pressure on the Biden administration and congressional leaders amid polling showing growing skepticism among Democrats about Israeli actions,” our colleagues Anne Gearan and John Hudson reported last week. 
  • “We cannot just condemn rockets fired by Hamas and ignore Israel’s state-sanctioned police violence against Palestinians — including unlawful evictions, violent attacks on protestors & the murder of Palestinian children,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) tweeted. “U.S. aid should not be funding this violence.”

Even Israel's defenders condemned Israeli military actions over the weekend: Menendez released a statement on Saturday after an airstrike targeted and destroyed a building housing the Associated Press and other media outlets in Gaza City. 

  • “I am deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets,” Menendez tweeted. 
  • Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, on Sunday called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
  • “Israel has the right to defend itself from Hamas’ rocket attacks, in a manner proportionate with the threat its citizens are facing. As a result of Hamas’ rocket attacks and Israel’s response, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further. We are encouraged by reports that the parties are exploring a cease-fire. We hope that this cease-fire can be reached quickly and that additional steps can be taken to preserve a two-state future,” said Murphy and Young.

As it stands: “The Palestinian death toll in Gaza climbed to 192, including 58 children, as of Sunday evening, according to local health officials,” our colleagues Steve Hendrix and Michael Miller report.

  • “In the West Bank, at least 15 Palestinians have been killed since Friday, officials there said. The death toll in Israel stands at 10 after a disabled Israeli man was killed Saturday in a rocket strike in a Tel Aviv suburb.”
  • No signs of slowing: “Israel struck the Gaza Strip again Monday and Hamas rockets continued to streak in the other direction as the conflict hurtled into its second week with little sign of relenting, despite increasing diplomatic efforts,” per Steve and Michael. 

At the White House

COMPETENCE VS. CHAOS: “President Biden’s administration by the middle of last week was confronted with images of long lines at gas pumps. The Middle East had erupted in violence. Headlines were warning that fears of inflation could threaten a fragile economy,” our colleagues Matt Viser and Sean Sullivan write

  • “A president who prides himself on choreography and planning has seen in recent days a burst of unexpected events that showcase the need for political agility. The White House is approaching the problems — all politically sensitive — with a degree of calm and caution, even as some allies want Biden to be more forceful before events spiral further.”
  • “As Biden and his aides seek to project steadiness, many Republicans are offering an alternative interpretation: The world is increasingly engulfed in chaos on Biden’s watch as gas prices surge, crime rates rise, border crossings grow and the costs of consumer goods threaten to spike.”
  • “The dueling political messages have created a Rorschach test for voters in upcoming elections: Do they see Biden as an agent of competence or chaos?”

The policies

NEWSFLASH, CONGRESS ISN’T COMING TO THE RESCUE: “Asked about the path to enact new voting-rights laws, Senate Majority Leader [Schumer] has repeatedly offered a pat reply: ‘Failure is not an option,’” our colleague Mike DeBonis writes. “But failure is very much an option — it is, in fact, the most likely one.”

  • “A Senate committee on Tuesday reached a partisan deadlock over Democrats’ sprawling overhaul of federal election, ethics and campaign finance law — the For the People Act, also known as H.R. 1 or S. 1 — and there is no clear path to breaking it.”
  • “A Thursday lunch meeting of Democratic senators to discuss a way forward did not produce any breakthroughs, and lawmakers, aides and activists said they have little more than blind hope that one will materialize.”
  • “Leaving the meeting, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a lead author of the For the People Act, said that progress ‘starts with the conversation among the senators’ … Yet the most important Democrat to the fate of voting legislation didn’t even attend the meeting. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) was in his home state.”

The campaign

CHENEY’S LONELY ‘BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY’: Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who last week was voted out from House Republican leadership, continued over the weekend her lonely campaign against former [Trump’s] false claims about the 2020 election, slamming her GOP colleagues for their attempts at ‘whitewashing’ the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and warning that Trump’s claims are actively eroding American democracy,” our colleagues Amy B Wang and Dan Diamond report

  • “I think it’s dangerous,” Cheney said Friday in an interview with Jonathan Karl on ABC News’s “This Week” that aired Sunday. “I think that we have to recognize how quickly things can unravel. We have to recognize what it means for the nation to have a former president who has not conceded, and who continues to suggest that our electoral system cannot function, cannot do the will of the people.”
  • “I won’t be part of that,” she said. “And I think it’s very important for Republicans who won’t be part of that to stand up and speak out.”

“Cheney expressed regret for voting for Trump in 2020 and did not expressly rule out a presidential run of her own in 2024, though she acknowledged that ‘at this moment, the majority of the Republican Party is not where I am.’”

  • “In her interview with Karl, she said the Jan. 6 insurrection is what had made her believe more Republicans would join her in speaking out against Trump … Instead, Cheney has found herself increasingly isolated within the GOP.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) spoke to interviewers on May 16, two days after being ousted from House Republican leadership. (Video: The Washington Post)

The investigations

THE MARRIAGE MAY BE OVER, BUT THE GATES ARE WIDE OPEN: “Bachelor sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein gave Bill Gates advice on ending his marriage with Melinda after the Microsoft co-founder complained about her during a series of meetings at the money manager’s mansion,” the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright and Kate Briquelet report

  • “The billionaire met Epstein dozens of times starting in 2011 and continuing through to 2014 mostly at the financier’s Manhattan home. Their conversations took place years before Bill and Melinda Gates announced this month that they were splitting up.”
  • “Gates found freedom in Epstein’s lair, where he met a rotating cast of boldfaced names and discussed worldly issues in between rounds of jokes and gossip — a ‘men’s club’ atmosphere that irritated Melinda.”
  • “[It’s] not an overstatement. Going to Jeffrey’s was a respite from his marriage. It was a way of getting away from Melinda,” one of the people who was at several of the meetings told Cartwright and Briquelet, adding that Epstein and Gates “were very close.”
  • “But Epstein wasn’t the couple’s only point of contention.”

Gates left the Microsoft board in 2020 amid a probe into a prior relationship with a staffer, the Wall Street Journal’s Emily Glazer, Justin Baer, Khadeeja Safdar and Aaron Tilley report. “Microsoft Corp. board members decided that Gates needed to step down from its board in 2020 as they pursued an investigation into the billionaire’s prior romantic relationship with a female Microsoft employee that was deemed inappropriate.” 

  • “Members of the board hired a law firm to conduct an investigation in late 2019 after a Microsoft engineer alleged in a letter that she had a sexual relationship over years with Gates.”
  • “Gates resigned before the board’s investigation was completed and before the full board could make a formal decision on the matter.”
  • “In a news release, the billionaire said then he wanted to focus on his philanthropy and would continue to serve as a technical adviser to Chief Executive Satya Nadella. That same day, he also vacated his board seat at Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the conglomerate run by Gates’s friend Warren Buffett.”

Outside the Beltway

CDC DIRECTOR DEFENDS MASK REVERSAL: “The nation’s top public health official on Sunday defended her agency’s abrupt reversal on wide-ranging mask recommendations, saying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had weighed new data before announcing that Americans who had been vaccinated could go without masks,” our colleague Dan Diamond reports.

  • “‘We now have science that has really just evolved, even in the last two weeks,’ CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on ABC News’s ‘This Week,’ citing new data that coronavirus vaccines are curbing the spread of the disease and offering protection against virus variants.”
  • “Walensky, who appeared on four separate Sunday morning news shows to explain her agency’s new guidelines, also touted widespread access to those vaccines and called on tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans to go get shots.”
  • “Pressed by ‘Fox News Sunday’ host Chris Wallace about whether the CDC was pressured to roll back its call for widespread masking, Walensky insisted that the shift was driven by public health, not politics.”
On May 16, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke about the agency’s change on mask-wearing. (Video: The Washington Post)