WASHINGTON ― Senior House Democrats considered and then on Tuesday scuttled a letter to President Joe Biden to demand he delay a pending $735 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel.
The move highlighted an intraparty split on whether to step up pressure for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas or take stiffer measures to end the fighting.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said he decided against requesting a delay after the Biden administration agreed to hold an “informational session” with lawmakers, likely for Wednesday.
It’s an about-face for Meeks that seems aimed to stifle a row between progressives and the White House. According to multiple reports, Meeks told committee Democrats during an emergency virtual meeting late Monday that he planned to send a letter to the White House requesting ta delay in the sale, which reportedly included Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, made by Boeing.
“What we wanted to do is have a dialogue and conversation,” Meeks said Tuesday. “We’re going to have a meeting with the administration tomorrow where the issues and the questions that one may have will be able to be asked, and that was the purpose of considering the letter.”
Meeks also pointed to the rocket fire against Israel.
“Hamas is sending thousands of rockets over to Israel,” he said. Thank God we do have Iron Dome. That’s important. So, we all want ― and I could tell you that took place in the meeting ― to get to the point where there’s a cessation of aggressions on both sides.”
The U.S. is Israel’s top ally, and Israel historically has been the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid, according to the Congressional Research Service, part of what gives the United States more of whatever leverage international leaders have over Israel’s decision-making.
The researchers say the more than $140 billion in U.S. aid to Israel over the years has been for military purposes, including for the Israeli missile defense system Iron Dome.
Amid Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel and Israel’s military response, some Democratic lawmakers supportive of the Palestinians have criticized the Biden administration’s support of the Israelis, who they say have caused civilian casualties in the fighting.
Committee member Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, was among Democrats seeking a harder line, saying 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.” He said late Monday that the Biden administration “must use every diplomatic tool to de-escalate this conflict and bring about peace.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Tuesday acknowledged the difference between a growing number of progressive Democrats and the Biden administration on the U.S. approach to the conflict, but played it down. “Every Democrat, and I think every Republican, wants to minimize the exposure of both sides in Gaza and in Israel,” Hoyer told reporters. “There’s a difference about how that can be done.”
“All of us are very concerned about the violence that is occurring,” Hoyer added, stressing support for Biden’s efforts.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, said that pausing the sale “would have sent a sign of weakness to our biggest ally in the region — that’s Israel.” McCaul also added praise for Meeks.
“It was sort of a given that it was going to get approved,” McCaul said of the sale. “And I think with Hamas, the violence going on now, I think the left ― progressives ― have given the chairman a bit of a hard time about his support for Israel, but I’m glad he’s holding firm on it.”
Congress was informed of the planned sale in April as part of the informal notification process, and there was no objection then from the Democratic and Republican leaders of the congressional foreign relations committees. The window is closing for Congress to pass a resolution disapproving of the sale — something that could serve to test the Biden administration’s deference to Congress.
For future arms sales, it’s an open question whether left-leaning members will continue to assert themselves. For his part, Meeks plans to be a sounding board for his colleagues’ views as Congress fulfills its oversight role.
“Members, on arms sales issues as well as others, want to make sure that they have the opportunity to speak and engage. That’s why they wanted to be on the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Meeks said. “And I think that we have a responsibility to have that kind of dialogue. ... I always urge dialogue, you know, which is what I want now. I want dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.