Is The Cessation of US Arms Supplies to Israel a New Beginning?

17.05.2024

Since the beginning of Israel’s attacks on Gaza, the US administration has acted in line with its own interests. Proposals for proportional limitations from the United States of America (USA) against Israel’s violence have always been rejected by the Israeli government. We know that many high-level representatives, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was specifically sent to the region by US President Joe Biden, returned empty-handed from their proposals and negotiations. Frustrated at being ignored, Biden chose a more dramatic way of making himself clear to Israeli leaders: he paused the shipment of ammunition.

What does the ammunition pause mean?

A look at US-Israeli military history shows that American Presidents have previously halted aid to Israel to express their displeasure or to influence policy. Former US President Ronald Reagan repeatedly delayed the delivery of fighter jets and other munitions because of his dissatisfaction with Israel’s intervention in Lebanon. Former US President George W Bush delayed $10 billion in housing loan guarantees to prevent American money from being used to finance settlement construction in the West Bank. But today’s circumstances present challenges that could affect the capacity of the Israel Defense Forces and the relationship between the two countries.

The Biden administration said last week that it was possible to assess that US weapons were being used by Israeli forces in Gaza in ways incompatible with International Humanitarian Law (IHL), but stopped short of officially saying that Israel was violating IHL. A recent report by the US State Department noted that while investigations into potential violations are ongoing, Washington does not have complete information to verify whether US weapons were specifically used in alleged violations of international humanitarian law.

Biden stressed that the United States will continue to provide ammunition for Israel’s main air defense system, the Iron Dome, which has performed well in the face of Iranian missile and drone bombardment over the past month in the name of ensuring Israel’s security, but said Washington would not provide offensive weapons in a move that would remove Israel from its ability to wage war in these areas. Among the 3,500 munitions whose shipments have been halted are both 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs.

While the US has been dropping 2,000-pound bombs from its aircraft since World War II, the current versions date back to the Vietnam War. This is an air-dropped munition that can carry a higher payload because it has no engine, and is one of the largest in the US inventory. There are several variants of this 2,000-pound bomb, some designed to penetrate deep underground targets, while others are designed to explode above ground and cause widespread damage. With a blast radius of 400 meters, 2,000-pound bombs are particularly pressing for the US administration given the impact they can have in dense urban environments. Israel relied on the powerful 2,000-pound bombs provided by the United States to target Hamas’ underground tunnels in Gaza. In fact, in the first month of the Israeli offensive alone, it was reported that there were at least 500 craters in Gaza suitable for the use of 2,000-pound bombs.

It should be emphasized, however, that the Biden administration is still allowing many other weapons to be sent to Israel and that no final decision has yet been made on the bombs, which are currently in limbo. There are statements from US officials that if the Rafah attack continues, this pause will not be a one-off. According to these statements, other already-approved arms deliveries could be delayed, or shipments awaiting approval could face obstacles, such as the sale of 6,500 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), which convert free-fall “dumb bombs” into precision-guided weapons.

The real causes of the pause

The reasons behind the suspension of arms shipments need to be examined. First of all, the need to take a new measure against Biden’s failure to play the game, which he has tried many times before, should not be ignored. We can see this as punishment to show his power or pressure to get his way.

However, it is well known that the attack on Rafah will cause great carnage. As the founding and protective actor of the current system, which is under increasing debate and whose revision is on the agenda, the US will want to stop any action that will make it visible that the system has become dysfunctional through methods such as massive slaughter, destruction and annexation. Moreover, there is a concern that the escalation of this violence will push the rulers of states in the region, who are in close partnership with the US for the security of their regimes, to side with Hamas. This concern was reinforced by the strategic move by Hamas to accept a ceasefire despite all the violent acts and potential for violence by Israel.

On the domestic front, Biden is trying to manage the process through social reflexes, legal frameworks and political maneuvering. It is clear that the student protests in universities have disturbed the American administration. On the other hand, the Biden administration is pressured by the frameworks set by the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the Foreign Assistance Act and the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy, which restrict aid and sales to “governments that commit gross violations of human rights” or “those at risk of facilitating or otherwise contributing to violations of human rights and international humanitarian law”, as well as the Leahy Act, which “prohibits assistance to abusive foreign military units”. All these laws have already been applied to temporarily freeze the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, and in 2022 against US-supplied units in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico and the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia. A significant number of people are calling for these laws to be applied to Israel as well, stressing the need for the US administration to avoid international favoritism.

On the other hand, some US officials insist that the pause was a policy decision and not motivated by legal concerns. The administration is nervous about legal judgment if it is used against Israel in legal disputes before the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Finally, Biden is trying to strengthen his hand for the US elections in November 2024, trying to please many people at the same time. This situation is not manageable for very long. For this reason, the conflict in the region must end before the elections. Because this violence negatively affects Biden’s election campaign, the unity of the Democratic Party and the US position in the world.

What will happen next?

Since it would be a loss of prestige for Biden if Israel continues its attack on Rafah despite this obstruction, it can be expected that the next steps will be taken faster. Considering that we are in a period when the current leaders and domestic politics are also effective, the process may turn into a “corrival” spiral of who needs whom more. This will not only affect the votes in the US elections but also reduce Washington’s influence in the region.

Even if there is an immediate cessation of air-dropped ammunition or artillery shells to the Israeli army, this may not have a very immediate operational impact, given their stockpiles. However, it should not be ruled out that a large-scale military operation in Rafah would quickly deplete Israel’s ammunition.

Under these circumstances, Israel’s options are quite limited. A group within Israel that insists on a national defense industry sees this period as an indication that if Israel cannot get the vital weapons it needs from the United States, Israel will have no choice but to try to build them itself. In contrast, advocates of technology-based Israeli production oppose large-scale production capacities. Moreover, the time it would take for such an investment to pay off is also a matter of debate.

While the EU, the UK and some other European countries have been conducting an escalating sanctions campaign against extremist Israeli settlers and far-right organizations in Israel in response to the Gaza attacks and settler violence in the West Bank, as well as initiatives to prioritize democracy in Israel, the US has recently turned its attention to the Israeli Defense Forces. However, it appears that German and British arms manufacturers and some politicians are planning to take advantage of this American sales pause to increase arms sales to Israel, and thus make commercial and political gains. It can be seen that Germany, Israel’s number two ammunition supplier, aims to reinforce its relations with both Israel and the US by complementing Israel’s deficiency with its increased defense capacity, to support its own increased defense investments and to get rid of the historical influence of social psychology.

Israel does not want a permanent standoff with the United States. Relations with the US, which is the biggest supporter of the Israeli leadership, not only militarily but also politically, are considered vital. However, Washington is not the only supplier and supporter of the Israeli state. While testing relations, this tension may also encourage new international partnerships.

 

This article has been published by Anadolu Agency (in Turkish) on May 15, 2024.

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