Liberal Dems launch 11th-hour push to stop Israel arms sale

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A group of lawmakers is cobbling together an effort to block a controversial sale of precision-guided weapons to Israel as President Joe Biden ratchets up the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring to a halt the increasingly deadly conflict in Gaza.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is leading the effort, along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and others, according to a draft resolution obtained by POLITICO. An Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson confirmed she is releasing the resolution Wednesday.

The resolution of disapproval, as drafted, aims to prohibit the proposed $735 million sale of a Boeing-built arms guidance kit to Israel. The Joint Direct Attack Munitions kit, as it’s known, converts unguided or “dumb” bombs into precision-guided munitions.

The eleventh-hour Democratic effort comes one day after a group of senior House Democrats on Tuesday backed off an emerging push to delay the sale amid intensifying violence in the region. Lawmakers wanted to use the impending arms transfer as leverage to push the Israelis to drop their resistance to a ceasefire.

Earlier Wednesday, Biden told Netanyahu that he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire,” according to a White House readout of their phone conversation. Last week, the U.S. blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council to call for a ceasefire, effectively backing Israel’s bombing campaign against Hamas, the Palestinian militant group.

As of Wednesday, Israel’s military operations in Gaza have killed 217 Palestinians, including 63 children, while 12 Israelis have died in the conflict, which escalated after Hamas launched thousands of rockets into Israel.

The resolution of disapproval isn’t likely to advance through the House or even the Foreign Affairs Committee; the period given to Congress for review of the Israel arms sale in question expires at the end of the week. Although symbolic, the Ocasio-Cortez-led push reflects progressive Democrats’ increasing uneasiness over the lack of conditions on U.S. support for Israel, skepticism that’s only deepened as Israel continues to bombard Gaza with air strikes.

Another supporter of the resolution, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), is the chair of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel.

“Selling American-made weapons to Israel while members of Congress are asking for a ceasefire is completely tone-deaf,” McCollum said in a statement. “Israel needs to end the bombing of Palestinian families in Gaza and the Biden administration must do more to bring a conclusion to this terrible crisis as swiftly as possible.”

Most Democrats, though, have defended the arms sale even as they have pushed Israel to agree to a ceasefire. Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) noted earlier this week that the Boeing kit is precision-guided and thus intended to reduce civilian casualties as well as collateral damage. Israel is facing international criticism for its strikes against Hamas that have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries.

Republicans, meanwhile, have remained staunchly behind Israel and Netanyahu. At a press conference on Wednesday, GOP senators hammered Biden for not being more outspoken in favor of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza — even suggesting that the administration was tacitly supporting Hamas.

“Joe Biden needs to stand up and reject this radical anti-Israel proposal,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said, referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s effort. “But Joe Biden has been rapidly caving to the left this week.”

Lawmakers said Tuesday that the weapons, bought directly from Boeing in a deal that had been in the works for years, would not arrive in Israel for months. Unlike foreign military sales, direct commercial sales do not get posted online, and lawmakers only get a 15-day window for objections. Congress was first notified on May 5.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the sale, citing federal laws restricting public comments on licensing activity related to direct commercial sales.

“We remain deeply concerned about the current violence and are working towards achieving a sustainable calm,” the spokesperson said.

The U.S. has long provided lethal arms, including precision-guided bombs, tanks and sophisticated fighter jets, to Israel. Since 1985, the U.S. government has provided nearly $3 billion in foreign military aid annually for Israel to preserve its military edge over its Arab neighbors.

Washington has also built war reserve stock facilities in Israel to stockpile military equipment, including ammunition, “smart” bombs, missiles and military vehicles. Although intended for use by U.S. forces in the Middle East, the equipment has on rare occasions been transferred to Israel for use during conflicts, including during the 2014 Gaza war.

In recent years, however, the political dynamic surrounding U.S. support for Israel has shifted significantly. While both parties broadly continue to express strong support for Israel’s sovereignty, some progressive Democrats have become more vocal about potentially cutting U.S. military aid to Netanyahu’s conservative government, particularly after he considered annexing part of the West Bank in 2020.

And pro-Palestinian activists were thrilled to see progressives take a more vocal stance against the Democratic establishment’s previously unquestioning support for the Israeli government.

“The traditional red lines that Congress previously never crossed are falling apart,” said Raed Jarrar, advocacy director with Democracy for the Arab World Now.

Sarah Ferris and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the party affiliation of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

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