Biden’s secrecy on arms transfers to Israel unnerves some Democrats

President Biden faces growing pressure from allies in Congress to publicly disclose the scope of U.S. arms being funneled to Israel, as the enormous civilian death toll in Gaza draws international condemnation and increasingly unsettles Democrats.

Contrary to its military aid program for Ukraine, which saw the Pentagon release recurring fact sheets about the volume of U.S. arms transfers, the administration has not made public the quantities of weapons it is sending to Israel. The administration is also pushing for the authority to bypass notification requirements to Congress that apply to every other country receiving military financing.

“I do not support the administration’s request to write into law waivers of congressional notification of foreign military financing, including for Israel,” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (N.Y.), the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Democrat, told The Washington Post. “There is no reason we cannot both ensure needed U.S. assistance is provided to Israel in an expeditious manner and ensure Congress is able to fulfill its constitutional oversight duty.”

A White House official defended the effort, saying it would enable the State Department to “immediately provide emergency assistance to Israel in lieu of having to wait more than two weeks for congressional approval.”

Meeks, a strong supporter of aiding Israel, rejected the notion that Congress can’t review the U.S. assistance fast enough. He is also not alone among Democrats in questioning the administration’s attempt to forgo the same transparency it provides for the expansive support supplied to Ukraine.

In just one month of fighting, the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 10,000, according to Gaza’s ministry of health. On Wednesday, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, said the number of lives lost is probably “higher than is being cited.” Hamas and other militants killed an estimated 1,400 people in Israel and took more than 240 people hostage in their stunning cross-border attack Oct 7.

“At a time when thousands of civilians are being killed by weapons provided by the U.S. government, the American people deserve to be fully informed about what is being provided to other countries, including Israel, with their tax dollars,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), told The Post. “The Biden administration should provide the same transparency around arms transfers to Israel that it has for Ukraine and other countries.”

Much of Israel’s arsenal derives from the United States, which provides the country $3.8 billion every year, making Israel the world’s largest cumulative recipient of U.S. aid. The Biden administration has asked Congress for an additional $14 billion in assistance for Israel as a part of the White House’s $106 billion foreign aid request, which also includes proposed funding for Ukraine and Taiwan. The massive package has yet to pass amid differing views between House and Senate GOP leadership.

Members of Congress are allowed to slow foreign weapons sales and military financing as they assess justifications for their transfer. In the text of the pending request to Congress, the Biden administration says it can “waive” notification requirements to lawmakers “due to Israel’s urgent need.”

Josh Paul, who recently resigned from the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, called the move unprecedented. He also questioned why the administration would need such authority for Israel but not Ukraine, which has received tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022.

“It has never requested such an authority for Ukraine despite the urgency of that situation,” he said.

Paul, who worked in the bureau for 11 years, resigned last month, citing frustration over the lack of tolerance for debate on issues related to Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he regularly seeks diverging views, though he does not have visibility on all of the debates within the department.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said scrapping notifications for Congress would break with long-standing precedent. “We should not make exceptions to this practice — it’s our duty to review these funds and ensure their use is in the best interests of the American people and in alignment with U.S. policy,” he said in a statement.

Throughout the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration has released and distributed detailed accounting of the types and volume of rocket and missile systems, tanks, and artillery that are being shipped to the war zone. Not so with Israel’s war. Thus far, the administration has been vague about the weapons transfers beyond saying that they have included small diameter bombs, Iron Dome air defense interceptors and munitions.

Elias Yousif, a research analyst at the Stimson Center, said greater transparency is essential, “especially as human rights organizations look to assess the conduct of hostilities.”

“To date, U.S. government reporting on arms transfers to Israel has been sporadic and without any meaningful detail,” Yousif concluded in a recent report.

A White House official said that while the Biden administration has not released as much information on Israel weapons transfers to the public, it has fully briefed lawmakers in private.

“We will continue to stay closely engaged with members of Congress on this,” said the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

That’s not acceptable, said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), noting that weapons transfers to Ukraine are made public, even though Kyiv is facing a more daunting adversary in Russia, “a regional superpower with a much more powerful military.”

“This is particularly concerning, given the wanton killing of civilians, and constant reports of war crimes and human rights abuses, likely using U.S. weapons,” she said.

The Biden administration has acknowledged the profound increase in civilian deaths in Gaza and has said it is asking Israel “tough questions” related to its conduct in the war, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a recent news briefing. Other officials say those questions cover a range of military matters, including where Israel has conducted missile strikes, such as the densely populated Jabalya refugee camp, where at least 50 people were killed last month in an Israeli strike.

Israel said it had targeted and killed a senior Hamas official, Ibrahim Biari, while Hamas denied that any senior commanders were at the camp.

“We have been very frank both publicly as well as privately with Israel that while Hamas uses civilians as human shields, that creates an extra challenge for Israel to ensure that it continues to differentiate between terrorists and civilians,” the White House official said.

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