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Biden’s ultimatum on Israeli offensive sparks bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill

US President Joe Biden (Photo: Reuters)

President Joe Biden finds himself at the centre of bipartisan criticism from Capitol Hill regarding his recent ultimatum to Israel, warning of a halt in some US weapons shipments in response to a potential major Israeli offensive in Rafah, CNN reported.

In a televised interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Biden’s declaration drew swift rebuke from lawmakers across the political spectrum. Republican Senator JD Vance of Ohio questioned the coherence of Biden’s approach, pointing out the contradiction between expressing concern for Palestinian civilian casualties and withholding weapons designed to minimise such casualties.

“On the one hand, they’re saying too many Palestinian civilians have been killed. With the other hand, they’re depriving us of the precision-guided weapons that actually cut down on civilian casualties,” Republican Senator JD Vance of Ohio told CNN though Biden specifically mentioned withholding bombs and artillery shells deemed by the administration as indiscriminate and imprecise.

“So if you’re worried about Palestinian casualties, the stated policy here actually doesn’t make a ton of sense,” Vance said, as reported by CNN.

The administration’s decision extends beyond mere rhetoric, with a review underway regarding the sale or transfer of munitions like Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits to Israel. However, these potential transfers remain pending, according to a US official.

Biden’s public announcement marks a significant shift in US-Israeli relations since the conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted seven months prior. Despite the administration’s assertion that Israel had been forewarned, the move has stirred controversy, particularly among Republicans.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina condemned the ultimatum as detrimental to the US-Israel relationship, urging the administration to maintain weapons shipments and engage in dialogue with Israel. Senator Rick Scott of Florida went further, accusing Biden of aligning with the “pro-Hamas wing” of his party.

Yet, dissent isn’t confined to partisan lines. A group of 26 House Democrats, led by Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, penned a letter expressing deep concern over the message conveyed by withholding weapons shipments. They called for clarity from the White House on its decision and the timing of aid delivery to Israel.

While some Democrats have defended Biden’s stance, highlighting the administration’s efforts to prevent civilian casualties, others have criticised the lack of clarity in the messaging. Representative Adam Smith of Washington state clarified that only certain types of weapons, specifically “dumb” bombs, were being withheld due to concerns over their use in densely populated areas like Rafah.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut emphasised Biden’s attempt to learn from past military campaigns, suggesting that excessive civilian casualties could strengthen Hamas and invite further attacks on Israel and the US.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed concerns over civilian casualties, stating that Israel must do more to minimise harm. He highlighted discrepancies in Israel’s application of procedures to mitigate civilian casualties during the ongoing conflict, according to CNN.

The toll of the conflict on Gaza’s civilian population has been significant, with the Ministry of Health reporting a staggering number of casualties. Despite this, a State Department report fell short of officially accusing Israel of violating international humanitarian law, a decision that drew criticism from Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Van Hollen expressed concern that the report’s findings could embolden Netanyahu to continue deadly strikes. He lamented the administration’s failure to provide a comprehensive assessment of Israel’s actions and their compliance with international law.

Murphy acknowledged the report’s limitations but stressed its accurate portrayal of the conflict’s complexity. He acknowledged disastrous decisions by the Israeli military but called for a nuanced understanding of the situation.

Senator Chris Coons of Delaware defended Biden’s actions, applauding his decisive response despite facing backlash. Coons asserted that Biden’s public statement exemplified his commitment to addressing the crisis effectively, CNN reported.