Top Democrat Changes Course, Will Not Request Hold on U.S. Arms Sale to Israel

Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, may pursue talks with the Biden administration on the matter instead

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Rep. Gregory Meeks speaks during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill, two months ago.
Rep. Gregory Meeks speaks during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill, two months ago.Credit: Ting Shen,AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks, has reversed course and will not send a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden requesting to delay a $735 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel pending review.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, told reporters that Meeks will no longer send the letter: “I think Chairman Meeks has indicated that he’s going to pursue discussions with the administration on this.”

According to sources familiar with the matter, Meeks faced significant pressure to allow the sale to continue following Monday’s emergency meeting among Democrats on the committee regarding the sale.

“It’s a complete reversal from yesterday [Monday],” a Congressional aide told Haaretz. “Not a single committee member voiced any opposition to sending a letter asking the administration to pause the sale while members could review it further.”

It is understood that Meeks will be meeting with the Biden administration on the sale following the significant furore caused by a potential hold on the sale, which he apparently believes makes sending the letter redundant.

“The goal wasn’t to get a briefing from the administration; the objective is to stop the violence,” the aide said. “There’s lots of disappointment that many folks are feeling because of the whiplash of the past day.”

When asked for comment, a spokesperson from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said: “With Israel under attack, the U.S. must stand with Israel and continue to provide her with the ability to defend herself by herself. We are appreciative that Congress remains committed on a bipartisan basis to supporting Israel’s security assistance without political conditions, and we are confident any vote in Congress on this issue would show that overwhelming support.”

Meeks became chairman of the important committee after last year’s primary defeat of his predecessor, pro-Israel stalwart Elliot Engel, to progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman. This is not the first time he has reversed course on the role of U.S. military aid to Israel. Prior to becoming committee chair, Meeks said the U.S. should be willing to leverage aid to Israel over annexation. He later backpedalled, saying that he is “unequivocal in regards to support for the [Memorandum of Understanding] and that should not be touched at all.”

The Washington Post first reported the sale of weapons, including Joint Direct Attack Munitions (“JDAM”) kits that transform bombs into precision-guided missiles and Guided Bomb Unit-39s (GBU-39), a weapon developed for penetrating fortified facilities located deep underground. The State Department, required by law to provide a 15-day advance notification of any arms sale, originally provided official notice of the proposed sale on May 5, before the start of the recent round of violence.

An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, on Tuesday.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov,AP

Several notable members of the committee, including Reps. Ilhan Omar and Joaquin Castro, raised concerns about the sale going through without review amid the growing death toll resulting from Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Omar said it would be “appalling” for the Biden administration to go through with the sale “without any strings attached in the wake of escalating violence and attacks on civilians,” adding that if the sale does goes through, “this will be seen as a green light for continued escalation and will undercut any attempts at brokering a cease-fire.”

Castro said he has “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.”

The debate also comes as progressive Democrats are increasingly calling for the U.S. to reconsider how aid to Israel is distributed, particularly if it is complicit in human rights violations.

“The Chairman’s intention behind a possible letter was to create an opportunity for Members to engage in a candid conversation with the administration about the arms sale. A letter is no longer necessary given that the White House has now agreed to engage with Members at the highest level on their concerns, and the administration's broader strategy on gaining a peaceful resolution to this conflict," a committee spokesperson said.

"The chairman is making it clear that otherwise routine arms sales will be subject to close scrutiny and oversight under his chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” he added.

Rep. Mark Pocan, who is not on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the latest lawmaker to criticize the impending sale. "The Israeli government has destroyed apartment buildings, press offices, Palestinian homes, and roads with a disproportionate amount of force. And now, there is a request for another blank check for Israeli weapons that will not end this violence," he said, adding that the U.S. "must take a more active, unbiased role in stopping both the killings and human rights abuses in this region."

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