Top Democrat won’t urge delay of $735m sale of precision missiles to Israel

Gregory Meeks, head of the powerful US House Foreign Affairs Committee and an AIPAC ally, will instead hold talks with White House on the issue

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., speaks during the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the administration foreign policy priorities on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington. (Ting Shen/Pool via AP)
Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., speaks during the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the administration foreign policy priorities on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Washington. (Ting Shen/Pool via AP)

US House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks will not be sending the White House a letter asking to delay a $735 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.

“Chairman Meeks has indicated that he’s going to [instead] pursue discussions with the administration on this,” Hoyer said.

According to a committee spokesperson, “The Chairman’s intention behind a possible letter was to create an opportunity for Members to engage in a candid conversation with the administration about the arms sale. A letter is no longer necessary given that the White House has now agreed to engage with Members at the highest level on their concerns, and the administration’s broader strategy on gaining a peaceful resolution to this conflict.”

“The Chairman is making it clear that otherwise routine arms sales will be subject to close scrutiny and oversight under his Chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” the spokesperson added.

The comments come a day after Meeks told Democrats on his panel that he was considering the somewhat unprecedented measure of slowing a White House arms sale to Israel. More progressive members on the committee had opposed the timing of the transfer amid the fighting between Israel and Gaza terror groups, a House staffer told The Times of Israel.

Those pushing back thought the funds should, at the very least, be used as leverage to pressure Israel into agreeing to a ceasefire with the Hamas terrorist group as the death toll in the Gaza Strip mounts.

On Sunday, the Washington Post broke the story regarding the weapons sale, about which the White House notified Congress on May 5 — five days before the Gaza escalation began. According to the staffer, several members of Meeks’s committee had not been aware of the notification before the Washington Post report. Congress has 15 days to raise objection to such sales once they’ve been notified.

Another congressional aide said that given that the procedures involved in delaying a purchase, the committee likely would not have been able to do so even if it wanted to, citing the looming deadline.

Rockets are launched towards Israel from the southern Gaza Strip, on May 17, 2021. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Meeks, who has been lauded by the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, has long been seen to be aligned with more moderate Democrats. Other moderate Democrats on the panel like Ted Deutch and Kathy Manning rarely criticize Israel. Those backing a delay or blocking of the purchase, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, have been far more critical of the Jewish state.

The Post said some Democrats who are critical of unconditional aid to Israel hoped to use the sale as potential leverage to broker a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Congress must intervene and stop the sale of these weapons,” tweeted Omar.

“Allowing this proposed sale of smart bombs to go through without putting pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire will only enable further carnage,” one Democratic lawmaker on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told the Post.

In a sign of Israel’s diminished status as an issue of consensus in US politics, there have been increasing calls within Democratic ranks to stop providing military aid to Israel unconditionally.

Last month, prominent progressive senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both used their addresses at the J Street lobby’s national conference to call for regulating US aid to Israel, asserting that such assistance should not be allowed to bankroll Israeli policies that damage prospects for a two-state solution.

US President Joe Biden in the State Dining Room of the White House, in Washington, May 4, 2021. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

However, around that same time more than three-quarters of the House members expressed their opposition to placing any conditions on US aid.

Prior to the 2020 US election, then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris said that a Biden administration would not place conditions on American aid to Israel.

Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have fired thousands of rockets toward Israel since the outbreak of fighting with Gaza last Monday, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed in the rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured.

Israel, in turn, has struck hundreds of buildings in the Gaza Strip using precision missiles. The military maintains that the targets it struck are all assets of Hamas or other terror groups.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, at least 212 Palestinians have been killed so far in the nine days of the conflict, including more than 60 children. It was not immediately clear if this ministry tally included all of those killed or if there were Hamas operatives not included in the count.

According to the IDF, more than 120 of those killed were members of Hamas and over 25 were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as of Monday night.

Explosions light up the night sky above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces carry out strikes on the Palestinian enclave, May 18, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with US President Joe Biden on Saturday and again on Monday about the ongoing escalation in violence and said the IDF was doing everything possible to avoid harming civilians.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday joined dozens of Democratic lawmakers — and one Republican, and independent Sanders — in calling for the ceasefire by both sides. A prominent Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, pressed the US over the weekend to get more involved.

Rep. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, linked Palestinian issues to those of Black Americans.

“We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma,” Bush tweeted.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took the Senate floor on Monday to assail lawmakers for including Israel in their demands for a ceasefire.

“To say that both sides, both sides need to de-escalate downplays the responsibility terrorists have for initiating the conflict in the first place and suggests Israelis are not entitled to defend themselves against ongoing rocket barrages,” McConnell said.

In a shot at Democrats, McConnell said, “The United States needs to stand foursquare behind our ally, and President Biden must remain strong against the growing voices within his own party that create false equivalence between terrorist aggressors and a responsible state defending itself.”

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida led 19 Republican senators releasing a resolution supporting Israel’s side of the fighting. They plan to try to introduce the legislation next week.

Times of Israel Staff and AP contributed to this report

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