The White House has convinced two key Democrats on Capitol Hill to lift their hold on a roughly $18 billion F-15 sale to Israel, even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adds to pressure on the Biden administration to release its own pause on a shipment of thousands of heavy bombs to the country.

Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York and Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland – the top Democrats on the foreign affairs panels in both chambers – confirmed Monday that they’ve lifted their months-long blockade of 50 Boeing-made F-15 fighter jets; Raytheon-made Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles; and Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions kits, which convert so-called dumb bombs to precision-guided munitions.

Shortly thereafter, Netanyahu released a video in English attacking President Joe Biden for his April pause on delivery of some 3,500 air-to-ground munitions for Israel, including 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. He said he raised the issue during a recent meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“It is inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday. :Israel, America’s closest ally fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and other common enemies. Secretary Blinken assured me the administration is working day and night to remove those bottlenecks.”

The Washington Post first reported Monday that Meeks and Cardin have released their holds on the hold on F-15s, which are not slated for delivery until the end of the decade, after pressure from the Biden administration and pro-Israel advocates. The Washington Post also reported that the Biden administration is considering releasing its own hold on the 3,500 heavy bombs for Israel, which were slated for immediate delivery.

“We continue to have constructive discussions with the Israelis for its release, but I don’t have any updates beyond that,” a National Security Council spokesperson told Defense News regarding the munitions hold.

Blinken said Tuesday that the U.S. continues to “review” the heavy bomb delivery but added “everything else is moving as it normally would move.”

Biden withheld the heavy bombs in May ahead of Israel’s Rafah offensive in the southern Gaza Strip, voicing concern that they would exacerbate civilian casualties in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and brought the population to the brink of famine. The last president to publicly withhold weapons shipments to Israel was Ronald Reagan in 1982 after seeing pictures of civilians killed in Lebanon.

Meeks also cited civilian casualties, widespread starvation and restrictions on humanitarian aid in April as factors in his decision to hold the F-15 sale before reversing course.

“I have been in close touch with the White House and [National Security Council] about this and other arms cases for Israel and have repeatedly urged the administration to continue pushing Israel to make significant and concrete improvements on all fronts when it comes to humanitarian efforts and limiting civilian casualties,” Meeks said in a statement. “I continue to support the administration’s pause on certain munitions transfers due to concerns about ongoing civilian casualties in Gaza. The aircraft in question will not be delivered until years from now, and I remain supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself against the real threats posed by Iran and Hezbollah.”

Congressional pressure

Although Meeks lifted the F-15 hold a few weeks ago, the State Department has yet to formally notify Congress of the sale. Nor has it formally notified Congress of a separate $1 billion sale in tank ammunition and tactical vehicles. The notifications would trigger a formal congressional review period in which senators critical of Israel’s Gaza offensive could trigger floor votes seeking to block either sale.

Congress has also moved legislation seeking to undo Biden’s pause on the heavy bomb delivery and restrict the president’s ability to restrict future arms transfers to Israel.

A provision in the House’s fiscal 2025 defense spending bill would bar the Pentagon from using funds “to withhold, halt, reverse or cancel the delivery of defense articles or defense services” for Israel, and force the president to transfer withheld weapons to the Israeli military within 15 days.

The Appropriations Committee advanced the defense spending bill last week in a 34-25 party-line vote with the full House set to vote in the weeks ahead.

Some Democrats also joined Republicans in May to pass 224-187 a more stringent bill undoing Biden’s heavy bomb hold, but the Democratic-held Senate has refused to hold a floor vote amid a White House veto threat.

Congress invited Netanyahu to address a joint session on July 24. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., both signed off on the invitation alongside Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Meanwhile, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.Y., convened a private meeting Tuesday for senators with several CEOs – including major Republican donors – to urge Congress to continue arms sales for Israel, Punchbowl News reported. Palantir CEO Alex Karp and Booz Allen Hamilton CEO Horacio Rozanski were reportedly set to attend the meeting alongside several finance and tech CEOs.

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.

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