'Fundamentally, nothing has changed in the basic relationship'

US envoy denies ties with Israel have changed: Only ‘1 set of munitions’ held back

In interview, Jack Lew seeks to downplay Biden’s much-panned threat to withhold arms if full Rafah assault goes ahead: ‘I’m hoping we don’t end up with real disagreements’

US Ambassador Jack Lew speaks in an interview with Channel 12 news broadcast on May 12, 2024. (Screenshot: Channel 12)
US Ambassador Jack Lew speaks in an interview with Channel 12 news broadcast on May 12, 2024. (Screenshot: Channel 12)

US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew insisted Sunday evening that “fundamentally, nothing has changed in the basic relationship” between Israel and the US — despite the decision last week by US President Joe Biden’s administration to delay a shipment of high-payload bombs to Israel, and Biden’s declaration that he would not supply offensive weapons to Israel for a major IDF offensive affecting population centers in southern Gaza’s Rafah.

Noting that military aid from Washington to Jerusalem has increased since war erupted in Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, Lew stressed in a Channel 12 interview that only “one set of munitions” had been held back, and that “everything else keeps flowing.”

The two sides “need to keep talking through” issues that relate to the use of “large diameter bombs, heavy bombs, particularly when there’s the possibility of them being used in densely populated urban areas,” he said.

“But I think it’s a mistake to think that anything has fundamentally changed in the relationship,” he repeated.

Asked about Biden’s stated intention not to supply offensive weapons to Israel “if they go [into] these population centers,” Lew replied: “What the president said is that he doesn’t think it is a good idea to have a massive ground campaign in a heavily populated area. But he specifically said that 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) bombs shouldn’t be used in that setting.”

Lew noted, however, that Biden has made clear that Israel, thus far, has not engaged in the kind of major ground operation in Rafah that the US opposes. To date, the Rafah operation has not “crossed over into the area where our disagreements lie. I’m hoping we don’t end up with real disagreements.”

US President Joe Biden speaks to CNN, May 8, 2024 (CNN screenshot)

Pushed by interviewer Yonit Levy, who asked whether the president was really saying, stop the war and don’t topple Hamas, the ambassador demurred and said the US had stressed from the start of the war that Israel has a responsibility to protect innocent civilians.

Asked whether the goal of the war remains to eliminate Hamas, he said the US “would never have used that language.”

“The challenge is to reduce Hamas to the point that it’s no longer a threat,” said Lew. “We have said consistently that Hamas should not be either a political or a governing body. That doesn’t mean that you’ve eliminated every last member of Hamas.”

“We’ve never said that it’s not a legitimate goal to go after the four battalions” that Hamas maintains in Rafah, added Lew. “We’ve said there’s a better way to do it,” including through “targeted operations.”

Addressing criticism, including from within the Democratic Party, that Biden’s withholding of arms is pandering to the far-left and helping Israel’s enemies, Lew noted that the administration had just endorsed continued military aid. It did so, it said on Friday, despite concerns that some US weapons may have been used in instances inconsistent with international humanitarian law.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded “that there would be no interruption in US aid for Israel,” said Lew. “That’s of huge consequence. There’s a lot of people criticizing that decision. I think it was the right decision,” he added, and advised: “You look at that in the context of one shipment of heavy bombs being delayed. You have to look at it in broader context.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, May 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Asked about the state of the hostage-truce negotiations, Lew said “people are misunderstanding” what has happened in the last week. “A proposal that Israel, the United States, Egypt and Qatar put together to send to Hamas came back with changes. The changes are not acceptable to Israel. And we’ve said they’re not acceptable, but you can continue to negotiate… We’re still pushing all parties to stay engaged.”

Relating to a report that the US is offering sensitive information on Hamas leaders’ whereabouts to Israel, with the implication that it has been withholding such intel thus far, Lew said, “We’ve been helping for some time on these things,” and that the US and Israel have a “common objective to defeat Hamas, to find the leaders of Hamas, to close the border to smuggling… We’re sharing quite broadly.”

Lew said he could not answer when asked how the war would end, but noted it was “already Israel’s longest war since the War of Independence” in 1948, and Israel has “paid a dear price.”

“Everyone wants this war to end, I hope. We certainly want it to come to an end that leaves Israel safe and secure, so that your sons and daughters don’t have to go and fight, and people can get back to their homes and live in their homes. And that ought to be our common goal.”

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