After freezing arms transfers, Biden suffers backlash from pro-Israel community in US

Jewish groups, politicians criticize president for withholding supply of bombs to Israel that, citing past civilian fatalities, he does not want used in population centers in Rafah

President Joe Biden waves as he walks to board Air Force One, Thursday, May 9, 2024, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. (AP/Alex Brandon)
President Joe Biden waves as he walks to board Air Force One, Thursday, May 9, 2024, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. (AP/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman who has become the face of the Biden administration’s affection for Israel, had something to get off his chest: Joe Biden is not anti-Israel.

“The arguments that somehow we’re walking away from Israel fly in the face of the facts,” Kirby said Thursday in a briefing call with reporters, his voice rising with passion.

Kirby was speaking a day after the president confirmed that he had suspended the delivery of some large bombs to Israel as it prepared to enter Rafah, the city on the Gaza-Egypt border believed to be the last redoubt of a major Hamas force. In an interview with CNN, the president also said he would not approve future transfers of offensive weapons to Israel should it invade Rafah.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which [Israel] goes after population centers,” he said. “I made it clear that if they go into Rafah… I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem.”

Biden’s decision led to dismay across a wide swath of pro-Israel figures, and was seized on by Republicans eager to court the Jewish vote.

The comments indicated that the president now stands at risk of losing a pro-Israel reputation that he has, for decades, nurtured as a matter of personal pride and that he hoped to rely on in an election year; some appeared to hint that backing from Jewish donors and voters could dry up.

“Delaying arms transfers to Israel is dangerous,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in an action alert to its members. “America must continue to stand firmly with our ally Israel as it works to defeat Hamas and defend its citizens,”

The message marked a shift in the pro-Israel lobby’s messaging since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught against southern Israel, which has repeatedly cited Biden’s pro-Israel record.

Abe Foxman, the retired national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who broke with decades of nonpartisanship in 2020 and campaigned for Biden, said Biden faced electoral peril, at least among Jewish voters, who have long favored Democrats.

National security communications advisor John Kirby speaks with reporters in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Monday, May 6, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“I hope that the response to what happened yesterday will send a message to him, that it’s not only Republicans that are criticizing you, but also Democrats,” Foxman said in an interview. “Arms sales during a war is a red line for most American Jews right now, center, even left. The only way to fix it is to turn it around.”

The electoral warning was echoed by Haim Saban, an Israeli-American entertainment mogul and a major donor to Democrats, who appeared to hint that Jewish support for his campaign could dry up while accusing the president of playing for votes.

“Let’s not forget that there are more Jewish donors who care about Israel than Muslim voters who care about Hamas,” he said in an email to Biden that circulated widely on social media. “Bad…bad…bad… decision on all levels.”

Several Jewish groups weighed in against the decision and bemoaned the fraying of ties between Jerusalem and Washington.

Anti-war activists demonstrate outside the office of Senator Cory Booker, in the Hart Senate Office Building as the Republican-controlled House approved a partisan $14.5 billion military aid package for Israel at the Capitol in Washington, November 3, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Biden’s decision “undermines our ally Israel, fails to put pressure on Hamas and emboldens terror while energizing Hezbollah and Iran, who specialize in toxic antisemitism and rabid anti-Zionism,” the ADL said.

The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations, expressed worries that the rift would help Hamas in delicate negotiations aimed at freeing hostages kidnapped from Israel on October 7 and held in Gaza.

“Daylight between the US and Israel on military matters emboldens Hamas and other Iran-backed forces in the region, encourages their delay tactics, and endangers the hostages by weakening Israel’s negotiating hand at a critical juncture,” it said in a statement.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Washington director, said Biden’s comments also undermined his own claims made in a well-accepted speech marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Capitol on Tuesday, when he pledged to keep the remembrance of October 7 alive and to maintain his “ironclad” support for Israel.

“Yesterday, I commended [Biden] for his speech,” he wrote. “Today’s threat to withhold arms from Israel betrays this truth.”

Smoke billows following Israeli strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 7, 2024. (AFP)

The US Israel Education Association, an Israeli advocacy organization that works with Congress, criticized Biden’s policy in light of the $14 billion in US military aid recently provided to Israel by Congress.

“[Biden] is now reneging on his support for Israel at a climatic moment in the war effort. This refusal to help one of our nation’s most crucial allies, particularly as they fight an existential war, is disturbing.”


But Biden got support from at least one prominent Jewish official with a long record of supporting Israel: Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Jewish New York Democrat and Senate majority leader, told The Hill that “I believe that Israel and America have an ironclad relationship, and I have faith in what the Biden administration is doing.”

T’ruah, a left-wing Jewish group, also commended Biden’s decision. The group wrote on X: “We’re glad to see the US taking seriously the responsibility to ensure military aid to Israel is not being used in violation of US and international law.”

Biden fiercely defended Israel in the days and months after October 7, when Hamas terrorists launched the war, massacring some 1,200 people in Israel and taking 252 hostage. But he has also watched with increasing concern as Israel launched massive counterstrikes, leading to the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, leveling large parts of Gaza and leaving its population in a humanitarian crisis.

The Gaza death toll cannot be independently verified and includes both civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed some 13,000 Hamas gunmen in battle.

Biden throughout his career has made his attachment to Israel central to his political identity. He calls himself a Zionist, and says he has been since he was a child, when his Roman Catholic father thrilled to the establishment of Israel as a miracle.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Nevertheless, criticism of Biden’s move also came from Israeli leaders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relationship with Biden has become more parlous in recent weeks, posted on X a speech of his from earlier in the week, in which he said that Israel will stand alone against Hamas if it must.

“I say to the leaders of the world — no amount of pressure, no decision from any international forum, will stop Israel from defending itself,” he said in the speech.

Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich stated bluntly that “the US opposition” would only reinvigorate Israel’s drive to eliminate Hamas, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a firebrand who leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, wrote on X simply, “Hamas [loves] Biden,” to public outrage within Israel and criticism from President Isaac Herzog.

Biden is caught in an electoral bind between a Democratic base that is increasingly turning against Israel and the anxieties of a Jewish community that has for decades reliably aligned itself with the party and remains mostly supportive of Israel.

“There’s just no question in my mind that it is hurting him with the larger pro-Israel community,”  said a senior pro-Israel Democrat, who asked not to be named in order to speak frankly. “And I see that in my inbox, I see it in people on Twitter who are talking about changing their positions. I’m still going to vote for him. A number of people aren’t.”

Republicans seized the move as an opportunity to make gains in a community that steadfastly votes in a large majority for Democrats.

A man walks past a mural depicting the US President Joe Biden as a superhero defending Israel on a street in Tel Aviv, April 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee this year, once again chastised American Jews for favoring Biden.

“If any Jewish person voted for Joe Biden they should be ashamed of themselves,” he said outside the courtroom in New York where he is standing trial for falsifying business records. “He’s totally abandoned Israel.”

The GOP leaders in both chambers, House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana and the Senate minority leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, wrote a letter to Biden on the issue. “We believe that security assistance to Israel is an urgent priority that must not be delayed,” they said.

Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, spearheaded a letter from Senate Republicans demanding answers. “You promised your commitment to Israel was ironclad,” the letter said. “Pausing much-needed military support to our closest Middle Eastern ally signals otherwise.”

The office of New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the minority leader in the House, did not return multiple requests for comment.

A pro-Israel supporter waves a flag while marching outside the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles, May 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The notion that Biden is embargoing Israel infuriated Kirby, who emphasized repeatedly that the suspension was confined to a limited class of weapons and that American arms otherwise continue to flow to Israel.

Biden “also said yesterday that he will continue to ensure that Israel has all the military gains it needs to defend itself against all of its enemies, including Hamas,” he said. “He’s going to continue to provide Israel with the capabilities it needs.”

Still, no president has withheld weapons from Israel as a means of pressure for more than 40 years, and some of the most consistently pro-Biden voices in the pro-Israel community were upset.

“We are disheartened by the partial withholding of US military support from Israel while the threats from Hamas and other actors hostile to Israel are acute, and when the US-Israel partnership should be at its strongest,” said the Israel Policy Forum, a group that dedicates itself to advancing a two-state outcome to the conflict and has a board replete with donors to Democrats.

Supporters of Israel protest near the US Capitol in Washington DC, Oct. 13, 2023. (Daniel Slim//AFP via Getty Images via JTA)

Michael Koplow, the IPF’s chief policy officer, said Biden’s messaging team was flatfooted, allowing his rivals to seize the narrative by coming out first with news of the suspension of aid and only then explaining that it was limited to certain weapons.

“There are too many people who are talking about this as if there’s now a US arms embargo on Israel or even as if the US has cut off all offensive weapons to Israel, which is not even not even close to being true.”

The Democratic Majority for Israel, which runs a political action committee that has made Biden’s support for Israel central to its advocacy, said it was “deeply concerned.”

“A strong US-Israel alliance like the one President Biden has created, plays a central role in preventing more war and making the path to eventual peace possible,” it said in a statement. “Calling the strength of that alliance into question is dangerous.”


Joel Rubin, a Jewish Democrat and former senior State Department staffer who has advised a number of campaigns, said Biden had considered an American electorate that since the Iraq war debacle 20 years ago has been wary of open-ended conflict.

“What Biden is trying to force the Israelis to do is to say, ‘Tell me how this ends’,” he said. “The American people overall will reward him at the polls for having a vision that gets us to an endpoint that leads to stability and calm. That’s the constituency he’s aiming for overall.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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