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Democrats consider changing course on Israel support

US President Joe Biden joins Israel's Prime Minister for the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.  (Miriam Alster/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden joins Israel's Prime Minister for the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Miriam Alster/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden told Israel the humanitarian situation in Gaza is unacceptable and an immediate ceasefire is essential.

Meanwhile, U.S. weaponry continues to flow to Israel.

Could Biden back up his tough talk and curtail military aid?

Today, On Point: Democrats consider changing course on Israel support.


Nancy Cordes, chief White House correspondent at CBS News.

Robert Jimison, congressional reporter at the New York Times.

Josh Paul, non-resident fellow at DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now). Former director in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs in the State Department.

Also Featured

Senator Chris Coons, U.S. Senator from Delaware and a member of the Judiciary, Foreign Relations, and Appropriations Committees.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: It’s day 187 since Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and took more than 200 people as hostages. It was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. In the days following the attack, U.S. support for Israel was unequivocal. President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the hours after the attack.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I told them the United States stands with the people of Israel in the face of these terrorist assaults. Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop. There’s never justification for terrorist attacks. And my administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.

CHAKRABARTI: Today, though, it is no longer October 7th. Or even November 7th, or December 7th. Six months have passed. And in those six months, the world has witnessed Israel’s military operations in Gaza, which so far have killed 33,000 people, including more than 13,000 children. President Biden’s unwavering support, voiced on October 7th, may now be wavering, at least verbally.

BIDEN: I think what he’s doing is a mistake. I don’t agree with his approach. I think it’s outrageous.

CHAKRABARTI: The president’s tonal shift came most clearly after last week’s Israeli attack on a World Central Kitchen convoy. Seven aid workers with the Humanitarian Food Assistance Group were killed by multiple missile strikes.

World Central Kitchen head, Chef José Andrés, says Israel targeted the aid workers and called Israel’s operation a war against humanity itself.

JOSÉ ANDRÉS: This was not just a bad luck situation where oops, we dropped the bomb in the wrong place or no, this was over 1.5, 1.8 kilometers. With a very defiant humanitarian convoy that had signs in the top, in the roof, a very colorful logo that we are obviously very proud of, but that’s very clear who we are and what we do.

CHAKRABARTI: The Israeli military is investigating the attack and calls it unintentional. But it just so happens that Biden calls José Andrés a friend. And personal relationships matter a lot to this president. So therefore, President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu once again talked on the phone last week, this time with much tougher talk about how the United States would support Israel going forward.

The official readout of the call says Biden, quote, made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers. End quote. Biden spoke with Univision after the call.

BIDEN: So, what I’m calling for is for the Israelis to just call for a ceasefire, allow for the next six, eight weeks, total access to all food and medicine going into the country. I’ve spoken with everyone from the Saudis to the Jordanians to the Egyptians. They’re prepared to move in, they’re prepared to move this food in, and I think there’s no excuse to not provide for the medical and the food needs of those people They should be done now.

CHAKRABARTI: The administration also says that U.S. policy with respect to Israel will be determined by how closely Israel makes changes to its operations in Gaza. Now those are strong words from a U.S. president. But they are also simply words. Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. That is what George Orwell noted in his immortal 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.

Quote, “Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness,” end quote. In the U.S.-Israel case, the obvious questions are if Israel does not make satisfactory changes in the administration’s eyes, exactly what will Biden do next? What actual changes would he make?

Would he dare stop a major U. S.-Israel arms transfer that’s currently in its final stages? Orwell called political language a tool, quote, “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Could Biden prove Orwell wrong and back his words up with concrete action? And if so, when would he do it? Here to help us answer some of those questions is Nancy Cordes.

She’s Chief White House Correspondent for CBS News. Nancy, welcome back to the show.

NANCY CORDES: Hi Meghna. Thank you so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: We’re also joined today by Robert Jimison. He’s a congressional reporter for the New York Times. Robert, welcome to you.

ROBERT JIMISON: Hi, Meghna. Good to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Nancy, first give us your view on what you’ve learned from your White House sources on the mood there and the thinking there over the past 24 hours.

CORDES: There’s obviously growing frustration, and I think you laid it out quite well, with the Israelis, with their conduct in this war, with their pace of implementation of changes that they have promised to make. And there’s a recognition that they are being vague, that they are giving these warnings to Israel publicly that are sometimes hard to make sense of.

They’ll say if they don’t make changes, then then the U.S. is going to have to change its policy. What changes exactly are you seeking? And what changes in U.S. policy are you talking about? When they say Israel has hours or days to make these changes. Okay. It’s now been hours or days.

Have they satisfied you? So we have a lot of questions that we’ve been putting to them, and they don’t really have answers. One thing that they will say, Meghna, is that just because they’re being vague with us and being vague publicly, doesn’t mean that they aren’t more pointed when they’re speaking.

Diplomatically, behind the scenes, with their Israeli counterparts. So they may be making much more pointed ultimatums to the Israelis themselves than they are when they speak on the world stage.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Nancy, hold that thought because I want to come back to it. It’s a really important one. And Robert, I’m going to come to you in a second.

Nancy, we’ve got tape of you actually asking these questions and struggling with the answers that you get back in a back and forth that you had with John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications. This was from a briefing just last week.

CORDES: In your readout, when you say the president made clear that the U.S., that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action. Could you decode that for us? What exactly is the warning that’s being issued here?

JOHN KIRBY: I think it’s very clear in the language itself Nancy. We’re gonna, we’re looking for concrete steps to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza. Again, I won’t get ahead of what the Israelis will or won’t say or announce. We’re looking for concrete steps to be announced here soon. And it’s not just about the announcement of concrete steps and changes in their policies, but it’s the execution of those announcements and those decisions and implementing them.

And we obviously will, we’ll watch closely and monitor how they do on the commitments that they make. And as I said earlier, if there’s no changes to their policy and their approaches, then there’s going to have to be changes to ours.

CHAKRABARTI: Nancy, it’s definitely understandable that members of any administration would be reluctant to specifically say, what they put on the table in the middle of delicate diplomatic negotiations.

That’s understandable. But has the administration come so far as even to say we’re not going to tell you what we’re threatening Israel essentially with, but we do have specific concrete plans or changes in mind already. Have they even said that?

CORDES: They have. In fact, I think Kirby’s answer on that day is emblematic of the dichotomy between their public statements and what’s happening behind the scenes.

Publicly, in his answer to me and to other correspondents, that was incredibly vague, right? He said we have, it’s very clear. We have certain expectations and if they don’t meet them, our policy is going to change. So he didn’t give us any details on what those expectations are.

But we learned later that day that in the president’s conversation with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he did actually lay out a specific request. He said, I want you to open the Erez crossing in Northern Gaza to allow more trucks to get in with aid. I want you to make Ashdod Port available for humanitarian aid shipments.

I want you to streamline the process of getting trucks from Jordan into southern Gaza. And Benjamin Netanyahu in response said he would and sure enough, later that evening, the Israeli government announced that’s what they were going to do. That was taken as a good sign by U.S. officials. But here we are several days later. That promise has been made. Those crossings have not been open yet, particularly in the north. And so they’re still in a wait and see mode. The Israelis, yes, are making promises to allow more aid in, but now they’ve got to make good on those promises.

CHAKRABARTI: And so then we also still don’t know if Biden has said anything specific as in, if you don’t make good on the promises, here’s what the U.S. would do. Just to be clear.

CORDES: That’s absolutely right. We still don’t know. We do know what they won’t do because White House officials have said over and over again that they are not going to halt military aid to Israel.

And that’s something that more and more members of Congress have been calling for.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, it’s as if you asked the question for me that I was going to turn to Robert with. Robert, give us the mood in Congress right now because from your reporting and others, it seems like the nervousness amongst congressional Democrats is growing.

JIMISON: I think that’s right. And as you laid out, early on during the conflict, there wasn’t as much vocal pushback or a lot of noise from Congress besides a unified voice of support for Israel. But what we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks and months is a growing sense of unrest in and a little bit of agitation amongst especially senators.

Many Biden allies on Capitol Hill, who are seeing the same images you and I are seeing coming out of Gaza, reading the same reports about Palestinians struggling with hunger and also the high civilian death toll. As that number climbs, a lot of senators are starting to ask questions. We’re both the supplier of the bombs that are going into this region, and we’re also one of the biggest backers of the humanitarian aid to support the people who are on the receiving end of those bombs.

And so senators are starting to ask questions, wanting more conditions put on the military aid going into Israel, wanting stronger concessions from the Netanyahu government to say, we will not use these giant 2000-pound bombs. They want more targeted attacks. And those really reached a new turning point in the past week.

When you’ve got more Democrats, both in the House and the Senate, the most direct and confrontational push directed at Biden to say, Hey, we need to stop these weapons and we need to do something different in the immediate term, unless Israel changes their strategy involving civilians.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re talking about whether President Joe Biden and the Biden administration would make or will possibly make meaningful changes to U.S. policy regarding Israel, given the ongoing death toll of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

The administration has been making noises to that front or in that direction, but no significant concrete action yet has been taken. We’re joined today by Nancy Cordes. She’s chief White House correspondent for CBS News. And Robert Jimison is with us, as well. He’s congressional reporter from the New York Times. And Nancy and Robert, I’m going to come back to you for a lot more of your reporting on trying to understand what’s been happening in the past few days. But if you could, I’d appreciate it if you listened along with me to Josh Paul. He’s currently non resident fellow at DAWN. It’s Democracy for the Arab World Now.

It’s a group that was founded Jamal Khashoggi, he of course was, or is the reporter and journalist who was assassinated several years ago. Josh was also formerly director in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs in the State Department. That is the bureau responsible for U.S. security assistance and arms transfers. He resigned from that position on October 18th of last year due to a policy disagreement that he had concerning the U.S.’s continued military assistance to Israel. Josh Paul, welcome back to the show.

JOSH PAUL: Hello Meghna. Thank you very much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, specifically, this arms transfer that’s currently on the table, if my understanding is correct, in February, so just a couple of months ago, the administration formally asked Congress to approve the sale of F-15 fighter jets and some bombs and munitions at a total value of $18 billion.

So first of all, is that a normal sized weapons transfer between the United States and Israel over time, or is there something different about it now?

PAUL: Thank you. And just to clarify, so the administration has informally asked Congress to move forward on this.

CHAKRABARTI: Informally. Yes. Thank you.

PAUL: So they right now need the approval from the leadership of the oversight committees, the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees. Once they have that, they can formally notify it. This is certainly a big sale, a big proposed sale. I think the largest in over a decade, since probably 2008 as it stands.

It would have taken some time to put together. And I think it’s important to note that these aircraft will not be delivered until after they’ve been built. So we’re talking at least three to six years down the line from now.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so actually those are important details. Because I think a lot of people when they first heard of this weapons transfer thought we’re just going to ship these jets to Israel now and they could be used in Gaza in a matter of weeks or months.

So we’re talking years out, but nevertheless, do we know the beginning of the plan for this transfer happened before or after October 7th?

PAUL: So it would most likely have come before October 7th. These sort of sales take time to put together. That doesn’t mean that there is not leverage here, particularly given that there is not an urgency to this transfer, that as it is going to take years to deliver, there’s no reason it cannot wait months for the Biden administration to assess Israel’s steps towards increasing humanitarian assistance in Gaza, towards coming to a full ceasefire and so forth.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So hold that thought, Josh. Nancy, let me turn back to you here. Given what Josh says, is there any indication from the White House that they may be rethinking their request and perhaps would be willing to wait a while until Israel shows that it’s complying with U.S. requests on changes to humanitarian policy in Gaza?

CORDES: There’s no indication at the moment, although of course, that could change particularly as pressure from Democrats in Congress grows. Right now, what White House officials say is that A, these weapons transfers were years in the making. They were approved long ago as part of the U.S.’s yearly aid to Israel, that they are reflective of the decades-long alliance between the U.S. and Israel, its strongest ally in the region. And they argue that Israel is in tough territory. It constantly faces threats from Iran and Iranian backed groups that existed long before this latest clash with Hamas. And so they say they are not going to turn their backs on Israel.

And that they are not going to bring any kind of halt to military aid. But again, that’s what they’re saying right now. That could always change.

CHAKRABARTI: Robert, in Congress though, how are congressional Democrats weighing that long term security interest of Israel and that the security interest may be benefited by the completion of this weapons transfer versus the pretty clear, immediate political peril that going through with a transfer like this has on Democrats themselves in this country?

We’re all familiar with the March 27th Gallup poll that just came out, so just a couple of weeks ago, that shows that across parties, Americans’ approval of Israeli action in Gaza has dropped from 50% in November down to 36% now. Democrats have to be keenly aware of that.

JIMISON: You’re exactly right. And I think it’s very important to make a clear distinction. Democrats in Congress, while they are calling on the Biden administration to place some limitations on offensive weapons, what they’re not calling for is the complete end of all military aid from the U.S. to Israel.

There’s still huge support unanimous support for the weapons that support the Iron Dome and other defensive weapons that the U.S. supplies Israel to protect itself against aggressors in the Middle East, like Iran. This F-15 jet order is going to be considered an offensive tool and since it is years down the line, it’s a strong piece of leverage that Congress has as the oversight body of these weapons transfers to say, We’re going to hold this up for a minute until we see more being done by Israel, or Israel assures us that they’ll do more to take care of not bombing civilians and also the humanitarian aid aspect.

They want Israel to take a more active role in guaranteeing more humanitarian aid coming in. That’s what you’re seeing with specifically this transfer. As Josh pointed out, there’s four people in Congress who can sign off on this informal portion of this F-15 order, two of them, the two Republicans with oversight, signed off immediately when it was notified.

They gave the thumbs up. The two Democrats have held it up and Congressman Gregory Meeks from New York. In the House he says, he is willing to hold up this weapon. He has not approved it and said he wants to hold up this weapons transfer and doesn’t want these kinds of weapons to be utilized to cause more civilian death.

And he wants to get assurances that Israel will do more to get humanitarian aid and the two big concerns from Congress. And so I don’t think the congressman thinks that in three to six years, these planes won’t be delivered. I think he’s pretty clear that the U.S. will make good on its agreements with Israel and this long, long decades-long partnership.

But, given the oversight and the way things work in Washington, Congress can hold up something and want something in return. That’s what you’re seeing with this F-15 order.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. You mentioned Congressman Meeks. Here he is once again, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the key people that would have to sign off on any arms deal.

On Tuesday, he told CNN that exactly what you said, Robert, that he’s waiting for assurances before giving that yay vote.

GREGORY MEEKS: I take things very seriously, and that’s why I’ve got to go, I’ll be going in a SCIF looking to see for myself what those assurances are. I say it is enough of the indiscriminate bombing.

I don’t want the kinds of weapons that Israel has to be utilized, to have more death. I want to make sure that humanitarian aid gets in. I don’t want people starving to death and I want Hamas to release the hostages. It’s enough, and I want a two-state solution. The F-15s won’t be delivered for five years?

I will make that determination once I see what those assurances are. Because I want to make sure though that death stops now, and hostages come home now. That’s what’s important here.

CHAKRABARTI: Josh Paul, what’s your response to that?

PAUL: No, I think that’s the right track to take on this sale. I do want to note and going back to something that one of your other guests said, when the administration says that this has already been approved, that’s certainly not true when it comes to these F-18s.

And it’s not true, not the case that this is some agreement that we already have with Israel to provide those. It is not until Congress approves the sale and the administration moves forward. In the meantime, I think it’s important to note that there is a daily drumbeat of new authorizations for Israel.

Where even if they are coming under previous Congressional notifications, they are still being approved on a daily basis by the administration. So it is simply not accurate to say that, for the most of these sales, particularly of bombs and other munitions that are happening, as I say, daily, that they are somehow pre-approved and we’re just moving forward on previous agreements.

These all require new agreements that do not require notification to Congress and that are being moved forward daily.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you have more information on what some of those daily approvals are in terms of what the weapons actually are?

PAUL: Yeah, media has reported just in the last couple of weeks several thousand approvals for bombs whether they be 2000-pound bombs, 500-pound bombs, guidance kits including joint direct attack munitions as well as various other military equipment.

So this is, beneath the surface, beneath what needs to be notified to Congress, there hasn’t been any sort of change. And there’s not clear that there is any leverage that Congress has, short of that, which the administration, which is to exercise, which to date it has not.

CHAKRABARTI: And these would be for immediate delivery?

Are we also talking about years out for the approvals that you’re talking about now?

PAUL: No, for the approvals I’m talking about now, these are for pretty much immediate delivery. Delivery within 30 days typically.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Josh one thing which a lot of people have been mentioning is the possibility of conditions to be put on any major weapons transfer between the United States and Israel.

And in a moment, I’m going to ask you to remind us about what conditions actually mean in reality versus in political speech. But first of all, I want to play a little bit of tape from Senator Chris Coons, our On Point senior editor Dory Scheimer just spoke with him just last night. He’s a Democrat from Delaware.

He serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. He’s also a very close ally of President Biden. So we asked him under what circumstances would he put specific conditions on further aid to Israel?

CHRIS COONS: If Netanyahu orders an assault into Rafah, where there are more than a million Palestinian refugees in the very south of Gaza, trapped up against the hard border with Egypt, and makes no provision for humanitarian relief or for those Palestinian civilians to move out of the way before this assault, I would seriously look at conditioning aid, but that’s not a position I’ve taken before, and it’s meant to convey just how seriously I take the civilian risk here. Tens of thousands would likely die in that conflict. To be clear, Dorey, I do think that we should continue to provide Israel with defensive weapons.

CHAKRABARTI: So Josh, clarify for us what exactly conditions on aid, and this is specifically military aid, what does that mean in reality?

PAUL: Of course, there are already conditions on, or at least theoretically so on U.S. grant military assistance, such as laws that say we cannot provide that assistance to countries that are restricting the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

It is not the case, however, the Biden administration has actually enforced those conditions, but they are there. It’s encouraging to hear Senator Coons say that. Because not only is he on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he is also the Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee that makes appropriations for the State Department, including our military grant assistance to Israel.

So in that capacity, he could theoretically write into law conditions such as we have in the case of, for example, of our assistance to Egypt, where that assistance is conditioned on Egyptian progress on human rights. So that is certainly possible. Of course, when it comes to the arms transfers themselves, there is no need for legal action here.

The administration, any administration, can suspend or delay any sale for any reason at any time until up to the point of delivery. So that is a policy tool that Biden has at its disposal right now.

CHAKRABARTI: Josh, the last time you were on the show, you also clarified in more detail again, what specific conditions can be put on weapons transfers.

You mentioned one big one, that if nations are acting against the sort of the U.S.’s humanitarian assistance policies, or what they’d like to see those nations to do, that’s one. But a lot of people have been saying can’t we condition how those weapons are used by the receiving country?

And if memory serves, Josh, you said there’s no way to do that, that the conditions have more to do with technology transfer, et cetera.

PAUL: So once the weapons are gone, they’re gone. This isn’t something that the U.S. typically looks at very closely. It is beginning to look at processes to do a better assessment of how weapons are actually used.

But the way it interprets the law, it believes the only existing legal hooks are if weapons are illegally retransferred or, reverse engineered. So there’s nothing in law that lets them do this, but there is also nothing in law that stops them from suspending transfers if there are concerns of any type.

CHAKRABARTI: So Nancy as Josh, literally this was his job for many years, to guide weapons transfers through Congress. Hearing him say twice the Biden administration or any administration can actually stop a transfer at any time. Any point in time, for any reason, has The White House given any indication, I’m using any a lot here because I’m just trying to cast a wide, as wide net as possible, that they would even consider doing that.

CORDES: Not yet, but I think it’s very significant that someone like Senator Chris Coons is now publicly saying that he would support conditioning aid in certain situations. He’s not only a member of the foreign relations committee, longtime ally of Israel and supporter of Israel, but also, he is one of the co-chairs of the Biden reelection campaign, and he’s unlikely to do or say anything that is really going to put the Biden administration in a bind.

So the fact that he is moving in this direction suggests that the White House is okay with that. And the White House is okay with democratic allies in Congress, putting more pressure on the White House, which the White House can then use to put more pressure on Israel to say, Hey, look. We’ve got Congress breathing down our necks.

They want us to condition our aid to you. If you don’t make changes, you need to do a better job. For example, deconflicting, which is a fancy way of saying doing a better job of knowing where humanitarian workers like the world central kitchen workers are, and where they are moving to. So we don’t see a tragedy like the one we had last week where seven humanitarian workers lost their lives.

And in a way, yes, pressure is ramping up on the White House. But that can sometimes serve the purposes of the president and White House officials because then they’ve got more leverage with the Israelis.

CHAKRABARTI: Josh, I have to let you go in about a minute here, but I’m curious. Since you resigned in October because you felt that there was no fair and robust conversation or debate over weapons transfers to Israel, unlike other countries that have received weapons from the United States.

Has anything changed, you think, since then?

PAUL: I think that conversation is beginning now, and we see that, for example, in Senator Coons’ comments. I think it has a long way to go, but it is beginning. That door is beginning to open. I think that’s very important, because you can’t have an effective foreign policy if you don’t have an effective debate.

Before I go, I do want to issue one note of caution, which it is great that Israel is letting in more humanitarian assistance. It is great that it has withdrawn some of its forces. I think we need to be very cautious that I think Israel still has every intent of going into Rafah.

And so it’s great that this debate is playing out here in the U.S., but it is also creating a window where more arms are being transferred on a daily basis that is just stoking that arsenal for a future operation.

CHAKRABARTI: Josh, we have a few seconds. If you were advising the White House directly, would you advise them to stop the transfers?

PAUL: I would advise them to stop the transfers of lethal arms that can be used to kill civilians in Gaza. Yes.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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