On collision course: Biden’s decision on the arms supplies marks one of the most significant moments of discord between Israel and its most important ally since Hamas’s October 7 assault. Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister, has struggled with a widespread perception that he was to blame for the security failures that allowed Hamas to overwhelm Israel's defences around Gaza. Image Credit: AFP/Getty

Washington: President Joe Biden’s decision to hold off supplying about 3,500 bombs to Israel was the culmination of months of rising frustration over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war in Gaza — and his administration may not be done yet.

The US acknowledged this week that it had halted the shipment, including 2,000-pound (900-kilogramme) explosives that could cause massive collateral damage in the densely packed southern Gaza city of Rafah, which Israel has said it’s determined to invade. It marked the Biden administration’s most serious signal of displeasure over the conduct of the ongoing war against Hamas.

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On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US is reviewing “other potential weapon systems” if needed.

A congressional aide and an administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said another pending arms sale has been under review for months — a potential $260 million sale between Boeing Co. and Israel for as many as 6,500 tail-kits to convert unguided bombs into GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

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Yet even as tension mounts, Biden administration officials and former officials said the moves had a clearly defined goal: exert as much pressure as possible on Israel to scale back or abandon an invasion of Rafah while being careful not to make a total break with Netanyahu’s government.

How does it impact truce talks?

The administration also wants to preserve space for negotiators who have convened in Cairo this week to keep striving for a ceasefire and hostage deal between Israel and Hamas.

Officials in those talks include Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, who is trying to bring home a deal whose prospects have whipsawed between hopeful and grim.

“The pause in arms shipments should not be read as a major break in the relationship,” said Mara Rudman, who held senior Middle East diplomatic roles in the Obama and Clinton administrations and is now a professor at the University of Virginia. “Consider it as an element in the mix at a key inflection point — maximizing efforts to reach a ceasefire that brings out hostages, brings in humanitarian relief and starts to build a pathway to greater sanity all around.”

It all comes at a critical juncture in the seven-month old conflict. Biden is facing domestic pressure for a solution with US elections just six months away, with pro-Palestinian protests sweeping major universities.

At the same time, Israel has begun strikes in Rafah that could either pressure Hamas leaders into signing a ceasefire deal or scuttle the negotiations entirely.

Is it the most significant moments of discord?

Biden’s decision on the arms supplies marks one of the most significant moments of discord between Israel and its most important ally since Hamas’s October 7 assault, which started the war. Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US, killed 1,200 people and abducted about 250 when its fighters stormed into southern Israel from Gaza.

The US has stepped up its criticism of Israel in recent months, saying it’s not doing enough to protect civilians and allow aid into the besieged Palestinian territory, parts of which the United Nations says are on the verge of famine.

“There have been far too many casualties in this battle space,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said in congressional testimony Wednesday. Israel’s bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza have killed almost 35,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Biden’s decision was immediately assailed by the Israelis, who privately expressed deep frustration to the US and warned that it could jeopardize the negotiations at a crucial moment, according to a person briefed on the discussions. The Israelis also told US officials that pressure should be put on Hamas, not on Israel, said the person, who also asked not to be named to speak freely about private discussions.

What’s the reaction of Republican lawmakers?

It was also assailed by Republican lawmakers in Washington, who accused the administration of sending the wrong message to Hamas and other Iran-backed militant groups such as Hezbollah.

The pauses “call into question your pledge that your commitment to Israel’s security will remain ironclad,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Mike Johnson said in a joint letter to Biden Wednesday.

“Daylight between the United States and Israel at this dangerous time risks emboldening Israel’s enemies and undermining the trust that other allies and partners have in the United States.”

While the administration has warned against a large-scale Israeli move on Rafah, where there are intact battalions of Hamas fighters, US officials have signalled they would accept a more surgical, targeted campaign. Biden told Netanyahu last month, following the killing of World Central Kitchen aid workers in an Israeli strike, that ongoing US support for the war would depend on new steps to protect civilians.

Is US administration willing to risk an open break?

The US also stopped far short of halting all military aid to Israel. The US recently signed a foreign-aid package that contains billions of dollars of fresh assistance for Israel. The paused bomb shipment isn’t connected to those funds, Austin said. Arms transfers that are under review were drawn from previously appropriated money, and the White House is committed to ensuring Israel gets all the new national security aid, he said.

While the administration’s actions this week might represent the toughest US stance on Israel’s behaviour so far, it’s still been handled in a way that shows both sides want to keep the relationship on solid ground, according to Gerald Feierstein, a veteran US diplomat who’s now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

At the same time, he said, other developments could further strain the US-Israel relationship, including a government memorandum due this week that outlines whether the US believes Israel violated international humanitarian law in Gaza.

“We still see the administration not being willing to risk an open break or an open confrontation with the Israelis,” he said. “A lot of it just depends on how things play out in Rafah and whether it gets worse.”

Were there any such precedents?

The Biden administration has previously taken smaller steps to show displeasure with Netanyahu, including imposing sanctions on extremist Israeli settlers and letting through a UN Security Council resolution that supported a ceasefire.

Major US interventions in the past have changed Israeli behaviour. In 1991, Israel begrudgingly attended the Madrid conference that led to a peace process with the Palestinians after then-president George H.W. Bush held up US loan guarantees to build settlements.

In 1956, heavy US pressure including economic threats forced Israel as well as Britain and France to give up their grab of the Suez Canal from Egypt.

But experts questioned if Israel could be persuaded this time as it sees its war in existential terms after October 7, the deadliest attack ever on the country.

“I cannot imagine American displeasure with the prospect of a Rafah invasion doesn’t loom large in the Israeli government’s calculus,” said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“At the same time, Israelis have other calculations, too,” he said.

How much will Israel reconsider?

Raphael Cohen, director of the strategy and doctrine program at the RAND Corporation research group, noted that Israel dialed back air strikes and opened border crossings after Biden voiced anger last month following an Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers.

“Despite Netanyahu’s rhetoric, Israel takes American pressure quite seriously,” he said.

But avoiding a Rafah invasion “functionally means leaving at least four battalions of Hamas fighters plus its senior leadership intact and over 100 hostages in Hamas hands,” he said.

“From an Israeli strategic perspective, that’s probably a nonstarter and it also may fracture Netanyahu’s coalition.”

Even with the pause, Israel is believed to have a significant weapons stockpile. It has a major domestic defense industry and the Biden administration has repeatedly shipped weapons that fall beneath the threshold for congressional notification.

“We are still seeing so many hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons going through that we don’t really know anything about,” said Ari Tolany, who follows the arms trade for the progressive Center for International Policy.

She doubted the halt would have “an immediate operational impact” but said it sent a message to Israel not to drop 2,000-pound bombs, as it already has in the war.

“For a place like Gaza, that is so densely populated, now largely with internally displaced people, there’s really no way to use bombs of this size in accordance with the law of armed conflict,” she said.