Why Biden Won’t Put Conditions on Military Aid to Israel

washington — President Joe Biden has steadily ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to allow more humanitarian aid and to rein in its offensive in the Gaza Strip. That includes increasingly public criticism of Israel and the recent U.S. abstention vote at the U.N. Security Council that allowed for a cease-fire resolution to pass.

However, Biden has stopped short of using what may be his strongest leverage — conditioning U.S. aid for Israel. The U.S. provides Israel with nearly $4 billion a year, most of it in the form of military assistance.

Lawmakers from his own party have voiced dissent. Both Senate and House Democrats have demanded that Biden comply with the Foreign Assistance Act and cut off military aid if Israel continues to block U.S. humanitarian aid to Gaza.

His constituents have signaled their outrage — hundreds of thousands voted “uncommitted” in Democratic primary elections in various states. The latest polls show 75% of Democrats now disapprove of Israel’s war conduct. Fifty-six percent of them say continuing to give military aid to Israel would make them less likely to support a presidential candidate.

Despite the political cost, Biden is steadfast in his support for Israel. Analysts say there are at least two factors that may be behind this: the president’s fear of the war widening beyond Gaza, and his own long-standing and deeply held views on the importance of the security of the state of Israel.

Self-proclaimed Zionist

Since Harry Truman in 1948 recognized Israel just minutes after its founding, all American presidents have supported Israel.

Biden stands out among them with his “extraordinary emotional commitment to the idea of Israel, the people of Israel, the security of Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. negotiator in Middle East peace talks under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

On various occasions, Biden, who is of Irish Catholic descent, has proclaimed himself as a Zionist.

As such, aside from being “gut-loyal committed to Israel’s self-defense,” he also believes he can “moderate Israel’s behavior as a friend from the inside, rather than as an antagonist on the outside,” said Laura Blumenfeld, senior fellow at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.

“It’s the international bear-hug theory of strategic squeezing,” she told VOA.

Biden has decades of personal relationship with Netanyahu, in 2010 calling him a “close, personal friend of over 33 years.” However, as Netanyahu continues to go against U.S. goals in Gaza, many are questioning whether Biden’s reliance on his relationship with the prime minister is helpful in finding an end to the war.

Biden and Netanyahu are “increasingly estranged,” Miller told VOA. As the rift between the two leaders deepens, Biden has even backed remarks by Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senate majority leader and the highest-ranking elected Jewish official in the U.S.

Schumer called Netanyahu an impediment to peace and urged Israelis to hold elections to replace him after the war.

However, Miller said Biden needs Netanyahu to secure the cease-fire deal and for his administration’s ambitious plans to create a “comprehensive integrated peace process” that centers on a two-state solution.

At a New York campaign event Thursday, Biden said Arab countries including Saudi Arabia were prepared to “fully recognize Israel” for such a deal.

Risk of widening war

Six months into the Israel-Hamas war, there is real potential for the war to widen in other areas of the Middle East, especially if Israel’s skirmishes with Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon escalate.

In this environment, “conditioning aid to Israel would delight Hezbollah, Iran and its other proxies,” said Blumenfeld. “Hamas wrote the script of October 7, and conditioning aid to Israel is written into the stage notes.”

The U.S. provides Israel with weapons systems and munitions for both deterrence and warfighting. Placing conditions for defensive systems – for example, the Iron Dome missile defense system – has serious risks, said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Hezbollah has between 120,000 and 200,000 missiles and other stand-off systems that can target Israel and would likely overwhelm Israel’s air defense capabilities,” he told VOA.

However, Jones pointed out there’s less risk should Biden decide to condition aid on specific types of offensive weapons systems, such as small- and large-diameter bombs, bunker busters and a range of precision-guided munitions.

Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, last month the White House mandated relevant U.S. government agencies to “obtain credible and reliable written assurances” from foreign governments that U.S. weapons are used in accordance with international and humanitarian law.

Israel has provided its assurances. Under the memorandum, the State Department has until early May to formally assess the assurances and report to Congress. If they were not found “credible and reliable,” Biden may have the option of suspending future U.S. arms transfers.

“While the U.S. is assessing the Israeli response, requests to condition military aid will be seen as premature,” said Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.

Whether Biden conditions aid may also depend on what happens with Israeli plans for its ground invasion in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians seek safety. As long as Israel does not cross clear American red lines, Goren told VOA, the likelihood of Biden conditioning aid “seems low.”

Netanyahu insists that the goal of “total victory” against Hamas cannot be achieved without invading Rafah, where Israel says there are four Hamas battalions composed of thousands of fighters. The Biden administration is imploring Israel to find an alternative to “smashing into Rafah.”

Israeli and American officials are working to reschedule a meeting to discuss Rafah plans. No date has been set yet, but a senior administration official told VOA that they are hoping the talks will take place “as soon as next week.”

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