Dems press Blinken on ‘highly unusual’ Israel weapons moves

Democratic lawmakers are seeking answers from the Biden administration over its decision to greenlight a pair of recent arms sales to Israel without congressional approval.

Nineteen Democrats called the State Department’s decision to unilaterally approve two emergency sales to Israel move “highly unusual” in a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday and obtained by POLITICO. It highlights a growing divide among Democrats, as progressives especially criticize how President Joe Biden has responded to Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war.

The lawmakers pressed for details about why the emergency sales were needed, which sidestepped the typical process that requires congressional approval, and any steps taken to mitigate civilian harm.

“It is essential for Congress to be able to conduct oversight of these arms transfers and determine whether they are consistent with humanitarian principles and U.S. law, and whether they advance or harm U.S. national security,” the lawmakers wrote, led by progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“We appreciate that your administration has repeatedly urged the Israeli government to take additional steps to reduce civilian casualties,” the group said to Blinken. “However, we are concerned that these transfers and the administration’s evasion of congressional oversight may be inconsistent with broader U.S. foreign policy goals.”

It’s not the first time the Biden administration has faced open intraparty pushback over how it has handled Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza and mounting Palestinian civilian deaths. Biden immediately faced criticism from Democrats for leaving Congress out of the loop on the two arms sales to Israel. The chairs and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees typically must sign off on foreign weapons sales.

The State Department in December used an emergency designation to approve the sale of 14,000 tank shells to Israel valued at $106 million. That same month, it used the same process to approve a sale of primers, fuzes and charges for Israel’s 155mm artillery shells previously sold by the U.S. The sale of the shells and added equipment totaled $147 million.

State Department officials have defended the move to expedite the sales, noting they have also used the mechanism to speed up weapons transfers for Ukraine, an argument that clearly didn’t sway certain members of Congress.

The Democratic lawmakers also pressed Blinken on whether the U.S. has conducted any vetting of Israel under the Leahy Law, which bars U.S. assistance to foreign militaries that commit gross human rights violations.

“Use of a national emergency waiver does not exempt the U.S. government from assessing whether arms sales are consistent with these policies,” they argued.

In addition to Warren, the letter was signed by Sens. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Fifteen House Democrats also signed on, including Reps. Betty McCollum of Minnesota and Barbara Lee of California, the top Democrats on the House panels that control appropriations to the State Department and the Pentagon.

Oversight of arms transfers will likely be a topic of debate when senators consider a $111 billion emergency aid package for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel. Democrats, led by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, are pushing to reverse a proposal by the Biden administration that would allow officials to waive congressional notification requirements for some U.S. military aid to Israel.