‘A disservice to the American public’: Democrats rip Biden over weapons sale to Israel

Meeks and the other leaders of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees normally must sign off on foreign military sales.

“For me, it’s systematic,” Meeks said. “There’s a reason Congress has oversight authority. And I want to make sure that oversight authority is continued.”

Some Democrats drew the comparison to the Trump administration, which similarly circumvented Congress to speed weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, sparking an uproar on Capitol Hill.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, Congress must be formally notified 15 days before the administration can conclude a large arms sale to Israel or other close allies — though the State Department has for years given more notice than that, on an informal basis.

“We already have a very short congressional review process. But I think that process is important, in all cases, for transparency and accountability,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And I think the decision to short-circuit that process does a disservice to the American public.”

A State Department official said Secretary of State Antony Blinken “determined an emergency existed necessitating the immediate approval of the transfer,” noting that the administration had used the same mechanism multiple times in recent years to expedite weapons transfers to Ukraine.

“We continue to be clear with the government of Israel that they must comply with [international humanitarian law] and must take every feasible step to avoid harm to civilians,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to speak on a sensitive topic.

The fight could culminate in a legislative push to terminate the sale, as the Trump-era maneuver did. But critics of the approach weren’t willing to commit to a specific course of action just a few days after the sale was announced.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has called on the Biden administration to do more to protect civilians in Gaza and criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war, was also critical of the shortcut.

“The bottom line is, I think Israel has the right to defend itself against the terrorist group like Hamas, but they do not have a right to go to war against the women and children of Palestine, thousands of whom have already been killed,” Sanders said.

“And I am not supportive, as you may know, of giving more military aid to Netanyahu’s right-wing government in order to continue that terrible war against the Palestinian people,” he added.

Blinken on Sunday defended the shortcut, saying it applies only to a small portion of the U.S. aid sent to Israel so far, “and we want to make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself against Hamas.”

The administration began shipping weapons to Israel within hours of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, and so far has refused to release a full list of what those weapons are.

The latest deal is for almost 14,000 120mm M830A1 High Explosive Anti-Tank Multi-Purpose with Tracer tank cartridges, as well as U.S. support, engineering and logistics, according to the State Department. The shells will come from U.S. Army inventory, so they can be transferred to Israel immediately.

During the Trump era, the workaround led to a standoff between Democrats and the administration over arms sales to the Middle East. Citing threats posed by Iran, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 used an emergency declaration to justify the sales of billions of dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan.

Congress approved resolutions to overturn sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but then-President Donald Trump vetoed them.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) a critic of the move then, argued this week that there are some key differences now: Israel has already been attacked and the Biden administration doesn’t have “a predilection to try to circumvent Congress.”

“You have a clear ally who is in the midst of a war and who needs materiel desperately in order to fight and succeed, whereas the other one wasn’t the same urgency as the Israeli one,” said Menendez, who stepped down as Foreign Relations Committee chair in September amid federal corruption charges.

Indeed, Israel’s fight against Hamas in response to the group’s shock Oct. 7 attacks could assuage some lawmakers’ concerns over being skipped. The top Senate Foreign Relations Republican, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, said the move was justified given the conflict.

“Israel’s self-defense is currently a matter of extreme concern and urgency,” Risch said in a statement to POLITICO. “This is a case where the use of an emergency designation is appropriate, and I have received the required details on these sales from the executive branch, as is expected.”

But it’s unlikely to satisfy Democrats who’ve complained that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to ensure weapons sent to Israel aren’t responsible for preventable deaths as civilian casualties mount and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens.

“I have deep concerns about the current military operations in Gaza and the lack of a meaningful response by the Israeli government to our stated concerns,” said another Democratic lawmaker and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about a sensitive topic. “The bypassing of Congress for these munitions only heightens my concern.”

Biden has acknowledged the issue, saying at a closed-door fundraiser on Tuesday that international support for Israel is fracturing due to “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza. In his bluntest public criticism of the conduct of the war, Biden added that Netanyahu “has to change.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led a letter sent to the White House last week calling for more Israel aid oversight. It was signed by Sanders and Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

The lawmakers urged the administration to do more to protect civilians in Gaza, complaining that waivers for required congressional notification of the sales would damage lawmakers’ ability to discern whether U.S.-supplied weapons are contributing to civilian casualties.

To Warren, the administration bypassing Congress over the weekend was another cause for alarm

“The White House made a mistake by avoiding transparency with Congress,” Warren said in an interview. “If they want to provide these arms to Israel, then they need to explain to Congress why and what conditions they’ve put on their use.”

Asked if Democrats might resort to a joint resolution to disapprove the sale, she noted that one previous resolution to cancel a sale to Riyadh “started with a letter.”

“I don’t think there is anyone left in the administration who doesn’t know how unhappy some of us are that Congress was not consulted,” she added.

Biden is simultaneously pushing lawmakers to pass $111 billion of emergency funding for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan before the end of the year. That package is in limbo in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans attempt to strike a deal on immigration and border policy, though a breakthrough is unlikely before both chambers leave for the holidays.

Biden’s original supplemental spending request sent to Congress in October included a legislative proposal to allow aid to Israel to bypass congressional notification requirements. Kaine said he’s concerned by the proposal and arms sales bypassing Congress generally.

“Bypassing congressional notification troubles me,” Kaine said in a brief interview. “There is a portion of the supplemental that I don’t like which is that it waives congressional notification of the aid to Israel, but not to Ukraine, Taiwan or any other nation, and I don’t think Congress should, generally, be giving up the congressional notification [requirements].”

Van Hollen indicated lawmakers could respond outside the arms sale issue.

“The recourse would be if committee members made it clear that this decision to bypass congressional review would create bigger problems in the future,” Van Hollen said. “In other words, sending a strong signal that there’s a purpose for review — which is transparency, is accountability — and if the administration is not going to cooperate with that process, then Congress will be less cooperative when it comes to other issues.”

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.