Biden Faces Bipartisan Backlash On Capitol Hill Over Israel Ultimatum

President Joe Biden speaks with CNN’s Erin Burnett during an exclusive interview Wednesday, May 8, in Racine, Wisconsin. (CNN via CNN Newsource)

By Jack Forrest, Andrew Millman and Avery Lotz, CNN

(CNN) — President Joe Biden is facing backlash from lawmakers in both parties over his ultimatum that a major Israeli offensive in the city of Rafah would result in a shut-off of some US weapons.

Biden’s decision to go public with the ultimatum in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett last week was greeted with pointed criticism across the GOP spectrum on Sunday, and vocal concern among Democrats.

“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 Sen. JD Vance of Ohio told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union,” 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.

The US is also reviewing the potential sale or transfer of other munitions, including Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits, to Israel. But these transfers are not imminent and would occur in the future, a US official said.

The president’s announcement last week amounted to a turning point in US-Israeli ties since the seven-month conflict between Israel and Hamas began in October. Still, the president’s aides said the message shouldn’t have been a surprise to their intended recipients in Israel given repeated warnings to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Earlier this month, Biden signed off on a pause of 3,500 bombs to Israel that administration officials feared would be dropped on Rafah — where Israel has issued evacuation orders for some of the estimated 1.4 million civilians sheltering there as it appears poised to continue its advancement on the southern Gaza city.

And last week, Biden told Burnett that if Israel goes 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.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the ultimatum “the worst decision in the history of the US-Israel relationship.” A frequent White House critic, Graham called on the Biden administration to “keep the weapons flowing” and sit down with Israel.

GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, meanwhile, told Fox News on Sunday that Biden’s decision sends “a horrible message for Israel” and claimed that the president is “unfortunately, now part of the pro-Hamas wing of his party.”

But the backlash hasn’t just fallen along party lines.

On Friday, a group of 26 House Democrats sent a letter to Biden saying they are “deeply concerned about the message the Administration is sending to Hamas and other Iranian-backed terrorist proxies by withholding weapons shipments to Israel.”

The group of House Democrats, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, also requested a briefing from the White House to get more information on Biden’s decision, as well as how and when aid appropriated by Congress for Israel will be delivered.

Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, however, highlighted the kinds of weapons being withheld. “The president was not as clear on this in the Erin Burnett interview as he should have been,” he said Sunday on Fox News, adding: “All that has been held back to date are dumb, 2,000-pound bombs because the president feels – and I think rightly – they should not be used in Rafah.”

Other Democrats have offered more forceful defenses of Biden, who arrived at his ultimatum decision after multiple rounds of phone calls with Netanyahu, starting in mid-February.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told Bash in a separate interview on “State of the Union” that Biden was “learning the mistakes of US military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“What we learned in both of those efforts was that you cannot defeat terrorist ideology. You cannot defeat a terrorist movement,” he said.

The president, Murphy said, “is telling Israelis we will be partners but you have to understand the pace of civilian casualties, the amount of disaster is, in the long run, going to make Hamas stronger, is going to make it more likely that Israel will be attacked again, and is going to make other terrorist organizations that have designs to attack the United States stronger.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that the US believes Israel has killed more civilians than Hamas terrorists as part of its war in Gaza, and that Israel needs to do more to mitigate civilian deaths.

“While Israel has processes, procedures, rules, regulations to try to minimize civilian harm, given the impact that this operation, this war in Gaza has had on the civilian population, those have not been applied consistently and effectively,” Blinken said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The Ministry of Health in Gaza reported Sunday that the number of people killed in the enclave as a result of Israeli military operations has risen above 35,000.

State Department report on Israel use of US weapons

Last week, the State Department released a report saying it is “reasonable to assess” that US weapons have been used by Israeli forces in Gaza in ways that are “inconsistent” with international humanitarian law but stopped short of officially saying Israel violated the law.

Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told CBS’ Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation” that “I think there’s enough on the books to be able to point to specific cases and make specific determinations. And on that score, the administration did duck the hard questions.”

Pressed if he fears the report helped give political cover to Netanyahu to continue deadly strikes in Israel, Van Hollen said he worries the administration did not provide “an unvarnished accounting of the facts and the law.”

The report did not find that Israel has withheld humanitarian aid to Gaza in violation of international law, despite conflicting reports.

“By not calling that out flatly and saying that there have been arbitrary restrictions put on it [humanitarian aid], I fear that we have set a very, very low bar, a very low standard for what’s acceptable,” Van Hollen said. “And I think that will come back to haunt us.”

Murphy said the report “could have gone further” but added it does “accurately explain the complexity of this. And let’s just also be clear about that. Yes, I believe that there have been some very disastrous decisions on proportionality created by Israeli military.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, defending Biden from Van Hollen’s criticisms over the State Department report, said. “I think President Biden has taken forceful action – so much so there’s been a lot of blowback for his recent public statement.”

This story has been updated with additional context.

CNN’s Kit Maher, Aileen Graef, Kevin LiptakJennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.

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