US missiles to be released ‘soon’ — whatever the Hellfire that means

Delay in arms shipment to Israel may – or may not – end in coming days, but Obama administration will continue increased scrutiny

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Illustrative photo of Hellfire missiles (photo credit: CC BY-Wikipedia)
Illustrative photo of Hellfire missiles (photo credit: CC BY-Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON — Exactly how bad are Israel-US relations today? Who the Hellfire knows.

What is clear is that two weeks after the revelation that the US had added an additional level of scrutiny to resupplying the IDF with weapons, business was anything but usual regarding the military-to-military relationship upon which Israel relies.

The administration in Washington is hunkered down tight on the transfer of Hellfire missiles to the IDF — a transfer that would most likely have been routine until the additional level of scrutiny was applied. And, despite optimism that the transfer would soon go ahead as planned, no such action has been confirmed by Washington.

Details on the timeline for the release of the Hellfires have proven elusive. Even on Capitol Hill, the sense is that the missiles will be released “soon” — a word repeated in numerous off-the-record conversations on the subject — but neither the timeline, nor the mechanism for their release, is clear.

Washington has, in fact, been extremely closed-lipped about the Hellfires.

It has been two weeks since The Wall Street Journal first reported that the White House had been caught off-guard by transfers of military equipment from the Pentagon to the IDF in the course of Operation Protective Edge.

According to that report, the administration responded to the surprise by tying up further arms transfers in an additional multi-agency review process. Some transfers requested by the IDF have since been released, but a request for additional Hellfire missiles remains unfulfilled.

Asked about the Hellfires almost two weeks ago, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said that “we generally don’t talk about specific deliveries after they’re requested and before they’re delivered, but I will say that things are being — things that have been requested from Israel are — we’re taking a little bit of additional care now given the situation, and if there were requests for such missiles, that would fall under that.”

Harf downplayed the significance of the “additional care”, arguing that “when there’s an ongoing crisis that senior people are involved with, whether it’s Secretary Kerry trying to get a ceasefire, whether it’s other folks on the ground, obviously we believe there’s an inter-agency process that needs to be at play here, and there always is for these.”

But, along with the State Department, neither the Pentagon nor the National Security Council would clarify any details about the process itself, including the timeline, the considerations involved, or the mechanism for the missiles’ release.

The report of the “additional care” emerged after a much-reported dust-up between Washington and Jerusalem over Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to broker an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, in consultation with Qatar and Turkey. The timing reinforced perceptions that political — and even personal — considerations may be involved in the decision to freeze the transfer.

Harf responded to that charge too, saying that she “strongly disagreed with the notion” that “the additional care is being taken because of some sort of diplomatic or political wrangling.”

Instead, in repeated statements, the State Department emphasized that the additional scrutiny was tied to the ongoing military in Gaza.

With a ceasefire in its third day on Friday, however, there was still no word from the administration regarding a timeline for the missiles’ delivery.

In fact, on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the ceasefire had not impacted the additional level of scrutiny that the transfer of weapons to Israel has faced in recent weeks.

The relative quiet on the issue in Washington has been compounded by a number of factors.

It is late August, a period in which Washington goes on vacation. Issues get put on hold, unless they are really pressing, e.g., a Russian invasion of Ukraine, or a terror group decapitating American journalists.

Congress, which has traditionally taken a very vocal front seat on issues related to Israel’s defense, is on its summer recess and will only return for a whirlwind two-week session before departing Washington for another week.

In addition, mid-term elections are around the corner, a fact that generally redirects the focus to domestic topics.

Although there was some anticipation that Congress might address the missile transfer, should the munitions remain undelivered when Congress returns to work next week, the silence thus far has been dominant — if not entirely deafening.

Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered a solitary tweet on the topic, asking why arms sales to Turkey were underway while the transfer to Israel had been stalled. But many Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike have indicated that they were told that the Hellfires would be released “soon” — and that there was no reason to worry or to act to speed them up at this juncture.

On Tuesday, Israeli media also reported that the delay was ending and the weapons would be transferred “soon” — but once again, no specific timeline was given by an unnamed military official quoted in a Haaretz article.

Such delays are not unprecedented. Previous administrations — and this administration — have put a temporary kibosh on weapons transfers to Israel in the past when relationships between Washington and Jerusalem have soured.

In late 2006, following the Second Lebanon War, the Bush administration delayed transferring weapons requested by Israel to replenish stockpiles, including the Joint Direct Attack Munition. In that period as well, State Department officials emphasized that Israeli requests for munitions were not rejected, just merely under examination.

There are different claims as to why that defense slowdown occurred, but it likely reached an even broader scale than the current “additional scrutiny.” The US went so far as to block military contractor Northrop Grummond from revealing details on US-made missile defense technology that Israel hoped to purchase, effectively suspending the deal altogether. An Israeli military delegation to the US was canceled as the media reported that relations had hit an all-time low for the Bush administration.

Even before that, in the early days of the Second Intifada, the US also threatened to stop the supply of spare parts for the Apache helicopters in protest at Israel’s use of targeted assassination — a threat that receded in the months following the September 11 terror attacks. At that time, Hellfires were also at the center of the controversy — the Apaches were the launching platform for Hellfire missiles used in the strikes, such as the November 2000 killing of Tanzim official Hussein Mohammed Abayat.

In the case of the Apaches, however, there was a clear ultimatum delivered: Stop targeted killings, or else. In this case — at least publicly — there has been little explanation as to why the precision missiles have been singled out for extra, protracted scrutiny.

It is, ultimately, a scrutiny that, according to all sources, will be over “soon.” But how long “soon” means, and what steps Israel is meant to take in the meantime, are anything but clear.

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