Biden asks Congress for Israel, Ukraine aid in giant defense package

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WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden on Thursday appealed to Congress to pass a massive defense spending package that would include tens of billions of dollars in additional weapons for Israel and Ukraine.

Biden called the package “an unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security that will sharpen Israel’s qualitative military edge” in a prime time address to the oval office fresh off a trip to Tel Aviv.

“We will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin win,” said Biden. “I refuse to let that happen.”

Biden did not mention heightened tensions throughout the broader Middle East, with Iran threatening to retaliate should Israel proceed with a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Mere hours before the president’s speech, U.S. officials said the Navy shot down missiles fired by the Iran-backed Houthis off of Yemen’s coast. U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and Syria – both of which are home to a multitude of Iran-backed militias – have also come under attack

Meanwhile, the House cannot pass any legislation without a new speaker as protests against U.S. support for Israel spread from Capitol Hill to the State Department to U.S. embassies in the Middle East. On top of that, the Biden administration is nearly out of funds to continue arming Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.

Congress is expecting the White Houses defense supplemental spending request to come in around $100 billion, with the lion’s share going to Ukraine and a smaller portion allocated for Israel alongside more funding for weapons to Taiwan and security for the southern border.

Israel has asked the U.S. for additional precision-guided munitions, which Israel is using to bomb the Gaza Strip, as well as more Iron Dome interceptors used to strike down Hamas rocket attacks.

After the Hamas attacks last week, the Biden administration sent Israel Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMS, small diameter bombs, 155 millimeter artillery rounds and ammunition from U.S. stockpiles, according to the Pentagon. The Israeli Defense Ministry announced Thursday that it has also received armored vehicles from the U.S. as it prepares for a possible ground invasion of Gaza. And Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said Thursday the U.S. will send Israel additional Iron Dome interceptors in the days ahead.

Israel is also using direct commercial sales with U.S. defense contractors to stock its arsenals ahead of a possible ground invasion of Gaza. Some 1,800 JDAM kits, which convert “dumb” bombs into precision weapons, have been rushed to Israel through this path, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity to discuss the transfers.

Israel has also said that it has dropped at least 6,000 bombs on the Gaza Strip during the first six days of its campaign, more than the U.S.-led coalition dropped in any month of its counter-Islamic State campaign.

Israel’s bombing campaign has killed some 3,500 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The initial Hamas attacks that sparked the war killed roughly 1,400 Israelis.

“The emphasis is on damage, not accuracy,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told Haaretz last week.

Josh Paul, the director of the congressional affairs at the State Department’s Political-Military Affairs bureau, resigned in protest on Wednesday over the continued transfer of weapons to Israel. His resignation letter posted on LinkedIn called the transfers “shortsighted, destructive, unjust and contradictory to the very values we publicly espouse.”

In an interview with National Public Radio on Thursday, he called on the Biden administration to adhere to its new conventional arms transfer policy. That policy says the State Department will not authorize an arms transfer it is “more likely than not” the recipient country will use the weapons to commit or facilitate the commission of actions such as genocide, crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Conventions or serious violations of international law.

“Air-to-ground bombs, and any explosive weapons in urban areas, pose some of the greatest harm to civilians in warfare,” John Chappell, a legal fellow at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, told Defense News. “Given the high likelihood that such weapons could contribute to civilian harm or even international law violations in light of what we’ve seen so far – in both public statements form Israeli officials and actual harm to civilians – I think it’s reasonable for the administration and Congress to approach this with significant concern when it comes to political will to avoid civilian harm.”

The U.S. provides Israel with an annual $3.8 billion in military aid per year.

Capitol Hill police arrested some 300 protesters on Wednesday demonstrating against additional Israel in the Cannon House Office Building, organized by Jewish Voice for Peace.

While a minority of progressive Democrats have called for a ceasefire, the majority of Republican and Democrats on Capitol Hill support another Israel aid package. The Ukraine aid package also enjoys robust bipartisan support but nearly half the House Republican caucus now opposes additional aid to Kyiv.

And that’s all moot if the House fails to empower a new speaker following the ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the role earlier this month. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, failed two consecutive votes this week to become speaker.

Ukraine

House Republicans removed $6 billion in Ukraine aid when Congress passed a stopgap funding bill needed to avoid a government shutdown earlier this month. The Pentagon has less than $5.5 billion to continue transferring weapons to Ukraine.

The Senate intends to move ahead with the White House’s supplemental request with bipartisan support, and the Biden administration hopes including funds for the southern border can help sway Republicans. But in the House, many Republicans oppose lumping Israel and Ukraine aid together – despite their failure to elect a new speaker.

The White House hopes its Ukraine request will last through the presidential elections next year, with Republican frontrunner former President Donald Trump opposed to more aid for Kyiv.

Additionally, Axios reported on Thursday that the U.S. is sending Israel two spare Iron Dome batteries in the Army’s inventory, which some lawmakers had previously sought to send to Ukraine prior to the Hamas attacks.

Stacie Pettyjohn, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Defense News that there “more overlap now, particularly on the air defense side, potentially. But it’s still not tremendous.”

She noted that the U.S. defense industry can surge stockpiles of the air-to-ground weapons Israel seeks to a certain extent even though the Air Force has reduced purchased of those weapons since the end of the Afghanistan War and counter-Islamic State campaign.

“Those are systems where there is excess capacity because we boosted it during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS,” said Pettyjohn.

More broadly, the defense-industrial base has struggled to keep pace with efforts to backfill weapons sent to Ukraine from U.S. stockpiles and arm Taiwan. Taipei has frequently complained about a roughly $19 billion arms sales backlog in weapons it has purchased from the U.S.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

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