analysisU.S.-Israel Relations

Does Biden’s arms freeze imply a real shift in US posture?

While the U.S. president's threat to halt supplies of offensive weapons to Israel has some officials up in arms both there and in the U.S., its significance has been "blown out of proportion," expert tells JNS.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Troy Osher Fritzhand
Troy Osher Fritzhand
Troy Osher Fritzhand is the Jerusalem correspondent at JNS, covering the capital city, the Prime Minister's Office and the Knesset. He was previously the politics and Knesset reporter at The Jerusalem Post and has written for the Algemeiner Journal and The Media Line. Also an active member of the city's tech scene, he resides in Jerusalem with his wife.

Despite repeated assurances of “ironclad” support over the course of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, the United States seems to have quickly turned a corner on the conflict, which entered its 216th day on Thursday.

Immediately following Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 attack, in which some 1,200 Israelis—mainly civilians—were killed, thousands were wounded and 252 taken hostage, U.S. President Joe Biden addressed the nation, saying, “In this moment of tragedy, I want to say to [Israel] and to the world, and to terrorists everywhere: The United States stands with Israel. We will not ever fail to have her back.”

This statement was backed up by a visit on Oct. 18—the first war-time visit to Israel by a U.S. president—and more words of encouragement and support for its war of defense against Hamas.

Upon returning from Israel, however, Biden gave another speech to the nation, saying, “We cannot give up on a two-state solution,” even as the bodies were still being collected in southern Israel.

A few weeks later, in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden started applying pressure on Israel to “immediately and significantly” increase the amount of humanitarian aid entering Gaza.

“The president reiterated that Israel has every right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism and underscored the need to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law that prioritizes the protection of civilians,” according to the White House readout of the call.

In November, Biden doubled down on his calls for a two-state solution, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that “Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited under a single governance structure, ultimately under a revitalized Palestinian Authority, as we all work toward a two-state solution.”

Over the following months, and as Israel continued its war in Gaza, the calls for increasing aid to the Strip continued. Ultimately, as Israel geared up for an offensive in Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip and the home to the last four Hamas battalions, Biden’s demands for a halt in fighting only increased.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden about the Iranian attack on April 14, 2024. Credit: Prime Minister’s Spokesperson.

‘Reiterated his clear position on Rafah’

In a phone call between Biden and Netanyahu this week, Biden said a ceasefire deal with Hamas is the best way to protect the lives of the remaining hostages being held by the terrorist organization.

According to a White House readout, the president “reiterated his clear position on Rafah” and updated Netanyahu on “efforts to secure a hostage deal, including through ongoing talks today in Doha, Qatar.”

Remarkably, shortly after the call, Hamas claimed it had accepted a ceasefire deal proposed by mediators, in what senior officials in Jerusalem described as “an exercise by Hamas meant to present Israel as the refuser.”

The surprise move angered Israel, which according to Axios was not informed in advance by the Biden administration, despite Biden and Netanyahu speaking earlier in the day.

This was followed by Biden’s announcement on Wednesday during an interview on CNN that he would be halting the shipment of arms to Israel if Jerusalem went ahead with its planned Rafah operation.

“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—that deal with that problem,” said Biden.

Responding to the shift, Likud Knesset member Dan Illouz told JNS, “Since Oct. 7, Israel has been at the forefront of a global battle for freedom, courageously combating the terrorist organization Hamas. President Biden’s recent policy of conditionally withholding weapons sales critically jeopardizes not only Israel’s efforts but also the broader stability of the free world.

“This policy emboldens terrorists and undermines international security, sending a message that heinous acts such as rape, burning children alive and taking elderly hostages can occur without dire consequences.”

This encourages further attacks in Israel and elsewhere in the free world, he said.

“Israel’s situation post-Oct. 7 has made it clear that we cannot tolerate Hamas ruling on our borders; Hamas must be destroyed,” he told JNS. “President Biden’s stance has forced us to make a grim choice: pursue global approval, which could potentially lead to our destruction, or ensure our survival, even if it means forgoing popularity and straining traditional alliances. Israel must choose survival. This is a moment when actions must reflect the urgency of survival over the desire for approval,” he added.

Knesset member Ohad Tal attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on Dec. 6, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

‘A public disagreement during wartime’

Religious Zionist Party Knesset member Ohad Tal echoed this, telling JNS, “What can be said is that [withholding arms] harms Israel’s security and prevents us from defending ourselves.”

Another Religious Zionist Knesset member, Simcha Rothman, called the move a “grave mistake.” Discussing the potential impact it will have on a hostage deal, Rothman to JNS. “It hurts the hostages, some of whom are American citizens, and the U.S. itself. The world is watching and wondering how the U.S. treats its allies and will ask themselves whether being dependent on American weapons systems will harm their ability to fight.”

There has been dissatisfaction with Biden’s stance back home, as well.

Following Biden’s arms freeze announcement, a group of pro-Israel Democrats spoke out against the president. Rep. Ritchie Torres tweeted, “As the leader of the free world, America cannot claim that its commitment to Israel is ‘iron-clad’ and then proceed to withhold aid from Israel. The mixed messaging makes a mockery of our credibility as an ally. No one will take our word seriously.”

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) called the move “deeply disappointing.”

According to Rothman, the American public understands the mistake Biden is making. The administration’s moves “call into question Biden’s statements that he has not forgotten Oct. 7,” he added.

All the while, Hamas has consistently upped its demands for a hostage deal, signaling that it feels the pressure is on Israel, not itself.

Israeli U.N. envoy Gilad Erdan told Kan News radio that while he attributed no bad intentions to Biden, “I think it’s quite clear that any pressure on Israel, any restrictions imposed on Israel, even if they are from close allies who want our best interests, are interpreted by our enemies—and that could be Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah—as something that gives them hope.”

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted on Thursday in response to Biden’s announcement that “Hamas loves Biden.”

According to Yonatan Freeman, an international relations expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Biden’s move does not necessarily imply a break or even a real shift in U.S.-Israel relations.

“Just like Netanyahu has internal political pressure, [Biden] has as well. … .I think this issue is blown out of proportion and could be a way to silence or quiet protests,” he said.

Biden’s arms freeze aside, “I have never seen this type of American support for Israel since the Yom Kippur War,” he said, reiterating that there is “no break in relations.”

Freeman’s remarks echo those of IDF Spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, who also downplayed the administration’s move.

Speaking at the Ynet and Yediot Achronot “People of the State” conference at Expo Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Hagari said that the coordination between the United States and Israel since Oct. 7 has been of “a scope without precedent, I think, in Israel’s history.”

Noting the integration of Israel into the U.S. military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), he emphasized that operational cooperation was more important than security assistance.

The two countries resolve their differences “behind closed doors,” he added.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid blamed Netanyahu on Thursday for failing to keep a lid on the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem.

The “failure of this becoming a public disagreement during wartime is entirely on the [Netanyahu] government,” he said.

Irrespective of which side of the equation one is on, it would seem that Israel should consider lessening its dependence on the United States for vital ammunition.

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