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Israel-Iran conflict eases pressure on Biden to condition aid


Vehicles in Tehran, Iran, drive past an anti-Israeli banner showing missiles being launched, April 19, 2024. The threat of a wider war between Israel and Iran may give U.S. President Joe Biden more breathing room to provide military assistance to Israel without restrictions.
Vehicles in Tehran, Iran, drive past an anti-Israeli banner showing missiles being launched, April 19, 2024. The threat of a wider war between Israel and Iran may give U.S. President Joe Biden more breathing room to provide military assistance to Israel without restrictions.

The threat of a wider war between Israel and Iran may give U.S. President Joe Biden more breathing room to provide military assistance to Israel without restrictions sought by progressive lawmakers of his own party.

Iran's massive April 13 aerial assault on Israel and Israel's more limited counterstrike early Friday have left the region on edge, fearing an escalation of the 6-month-old Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

An aid package is set to be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives as soon as Saturday. The bill provides $26.4 billion for Israel's security, part of a package of bills that would help Israel and Ukraine while seeking to deter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. A total of $95 billion in foreign aid funding is proposed.

On Wednesday, Biden urged passage of the bills and vowed to immediately sign them into law.

For months, top Democrats have called on Biden to condition at least some types of military aid to Israel to avoid American weapons from being used to facilitate human rights violations, which is illegal under the U.S. "Leahy Law."

But analysts say the flare-up between Israel and Iran may have eased some of that pressure, at least for now.

"He has more maneuvering room with his left flank now," said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"He has a moment where he can remind the country, he can remind Democrats that they need to zoom out and understand who's really behind all of the different fires that have been set throughout the Middle East," he said.

Biden: 'Unthinkable' to stand by

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, Biden warned of the U.S. being drawn into war.

"Israel is our strongest partner in the Middle East; it's unthinkable that we would stand by if its defenses were weakened and Iran was able to carry out the destruction it intended this weekend," he said, referring to the April 13 drone and missile attacks on Israeli soil.

Such an outcome is less likely if the U.S. provides military aid now, he argued, so that Israel's defenses "can remain fully stocked and ready."

Proposed aid for Israel

The proposed Israeli aid includes $4 billion to replenish Iron Dome and David's Sling missile defense systems, and $1.2 billion for the Iron Beam defense system to counter short-range rockets and mortars.

Those are weapons systems that thwarted most of the hundreds of drones and missiles launched on April 13 by Tehran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, which frequently lobs missiles from Lebanon on Israel's northern border.

Most Democrats support aid for systems that protect Israeli skies, but some are concerned about funding for the types of arms that have killed civilians in Gaza.

The aid bill includes $1 billion to enhance the production and development of artillery and other munitions, and $4.4 billion to replenish defense articles and defense services provided to Israel, which could cover various types of munitions.

There's also $3.5 billion set aside for the procurement of weapons and defense services through the Foreign Military Financing, or FMF program. FMF is financing from the U.S. government for allies to procure defense articles or services through either Foreign Military Sales, FMS, or Direct Commercial Sales, also called DCS.

That $3.5 billion allocation can essentially be used to purchase any type of weaponry, said Josh Paul, a former director of congressional and public affairs at the State Department bureau that handles arms transfers.

The bill "also expands the scope through which weapons can be transferred, and frankly the speed through which they can be transferred," he told VOA.

Procurement under FMF could include arms used in Gaza and the West Bank, said Ari Tolany, director of security assistance, arms trade and technology at the Center for International Policy.

It is "non-specific and could capture most munition types, as well as things like targeting support and surveillance technology," she said.

A summary of the bill notes it provides "additional flexibility for transfers of defense articles to Israel from U.S. stockpiles held abroad," and prohibits funds to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

UNRWA provides support for Palestinian refugees and has come under intense criticism since Israel alleged some of its staff were involved in Hamas' October 7 attack, which killed 1,200 people in Israel and took more than 200 hostages.

Israel's response has killed nearly 34,000 people in Gaza, according to the health ministry there. International aid organizations have warned of famine in the Palestinian enclave.

Earlier this week, the ProPublica investigative news organization reported that a special U.S. State Department panel recommended months ago that Secretary of State Antony Blinken stop aid to some Israeli military and police units over allegations of human rights violations in the West Bank, mostly before October 7.

On Friday, Blinken said his department had concluded investigations to determine whether the "very important" Leahy Law was violated and will announce the results in coming days.

Waiver on congressional oversight

The House Israel bill includes a provision that congressional notification of an FMF obligation may be waived if the secretary of state determines that a national security emergency exists requiring the immediate transfer of arms. The provision is similar to a waiver that currently applies to FMS, Tolany said.

"Normally, that obligation of FMF still needs to be notified to Congress, but if this bill passes, that will not be the case," she said. That means up to $3.5 billion of weapons can potentially be provided to Israel without notification from the administration.

"The public and Congress would have virtually no insight into what kind of munitions are transferred," she said.

VOA asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during Friday’s news briefing if American taxpayers have the right to know what kinds of weapons the administration sends to Israel.

“This is about our national security,” she said. “We have to continue our strong commitment to Israel's security. That continues to be ironclad.”

The FMS emergency authority waiver is rarely used, but Blinken invoked it twice in December to transfer more than $250 million in weapons to Israel.

That move galvanized some Democratic lawmakers to strengthen congressional oversight. Senator Tim Kaine of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees introduced an amendment to strike down the FMF congressional notification waiver in the Senate's supplemental funding bill.

Despite support from prominent Democrats for Kaine's amendment, the Senate's supplemental package passed in February without a vote on it, leaving the notification waiver for the FMF in place.

Congressman Joaquin Castro introduced a similar amendment to the House appropriations bill, but it's also unlikely to be brought to a vote.

The Israeli House supplemental package includes $2.4 billion for "current U.S. military operations in the region in response to recent attacks."

That would include Iran's April 13 airstrikes, which Tehran says were conducted in retaliation for Israel's April 1 bombing of Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus, Syria. The U.S. said it was not "involved in any offensive operations" in Israel's subsequent Friday counterstrike on Iran.