Foreign minister says fight against terror group won’t halt, envoy to UN warns president could suffer at polls in November; US Jewish groups, GOP, some Democrats also reject move

Demonstrators demand the continuation of fighting in the Gaza Strip outside the US Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv, May 7, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A threat by US President Joe Biden that some arms shipments will be frozen if the Israel launches a planned offensive in Rafah was met with swift denunciation from government figures in Jerusalem on Thursday, who indicated that the military would push ahead regardless.

The comments from Biden also sparked harsh criticism against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by chief opposition rival Yair Lapid for what he said was the government’s “failed management” of ties with Washington.

In the US, some American Jewish groups and US lawmakers spoke out against the move and others indicated it was unlikely to go beyond words. Former president Donald Trump accused Biden of siding with terrorists.

In an apparent initial reaction from the Israeli government, Foreign Minister Israel Katz wrote on social media platform X that “Israel will continue to fight Hamas until its destruction.”

“There is no war more just than this,” he added, without directly referencing Biden’s remarks.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich stated bluntly that the strong American opposition would only reinvigorate Israel’s drive to eliminate Hamas.

“We must continue this war until victory, despite, and to a certain extent precisely because of, the opposition of the administration Biden and the stopping of arms shipments,” he said in a statement. “We simply have no other choice that does not endanger our existence and security.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a firebrand who leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, tweeted simply that “Hamas [loves] Biden.”

In New York, UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan called Biden’s remarks “difficult and very disappointing,” and expressed concern that they would be interpreted by Israel’s foes Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah as “something that gives them hope to succeed.”

On CNN Wednesday night, Biden announced that his administration would stop providing Israel with offensive weapons if it launches a ground invasion into populated parts of the southern Gaza city of Rafah as part of its campaign to topple the Hamas terror group.

“I’ve made it clear to Bibi and the war cabinet: They’re not going to get our support if they go [into] these population centers,” Biden said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

The interview marked Biden’s toughest public comments yet on the matter, and came shortly on the heels of his decision to put a transfer of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs on hold over concerns that that the IDF could use them in densely populated Rafah, as is has in other parts of Gaza.

President Joe Biden waves as he walks with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre from Marine One as he arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, May 8, 2024, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah… I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem,” Biden said.

Concern has grown in the administration that Israel is not planning to heed US warnings against a major offensive that the White House feels wouldn’t take into account the million-plus Palestinians sheltering in Gaza’s southernmost city.

The issue has become a major point of contention between Biden and Netanyahu, who insists a ground offensive into Rafah is necessary to fulfill the war goal of removing Hamas from power following the October 7 massacre. Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition partners have demanded that the offensive go ahead, threatening to bolt the government should it instead prioritize a truce agreement freeing hostages and halting the fighting.

“If Israel is restricted from entering an area as important and central as Rafah where there are thousands of terrorists, hostages and leaders of Hamas, how exactly are we supposed to achieve our goals?” Erdan asked, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster.

He also warned the move could hurt the president at the ballot box come November.

“There are many Jewish Americans who voted for the president and for the Democratic Party, and now they are hesitant,” Erdan said.

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York on March 25, 2024. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

Heritage Minister Amichay Eliyahu, from the hardline Otzma Yehudit party, accused Biden of following the path of former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who attempted to appease Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler in 1938.

“Joe Biden can be [Winston] Churchill but he is choosing to be Chamberlain, he chooses dishonour and will get both dishonour and war,” he tweeted in Hebrew and English.

Lapid, who has repeatedly pointed to the frayed ties with Israel’s most important ally as a reason for Netanyahu to be ousted from power, said the Israeli leadership was at fault for allowing friction to reach this point.

“The failure of this becoming a public disagreement during wartime is entirely on the government,” he told Radio 103FM.

Relatives and supporters of hostages taken captive by Hamas on October 7 hold placards and wave flags during a demonstration calling for their release, Tel Aviv, May 6, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Lapid cited remarks by Netanyahu during Holocaust Remembrance Day pledging to go it alone if needed, which came days after Biden signed a hard-fought bill into law allocating billions of dollars in foreign assistance to Israel’s military.

“It wasn’t supposed to come to this,” the opposition leader said. “The prime minister, one minute after the Americans give us $14 billion, stands at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day and says that ‘If Israel has to stand alone, it will stand alone.’ The Americans were offended by this.”

Israeli soldiers work on armored military vehicles at a staging ground near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Lapid also called on Netanyahu to fire Ben Gvir for his “Hamas loves Biden” tweet, though the message echoed comments from some Republican politicians and US Jewish leaders.

“Crooked Joe is taking the side of these terrorists just like he has sided with the Radical Mobs taking over our college campuses, because his donors are funding them,” Trump, who is running against Biden for another term in the White House, wrote on his Truth Social platform.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah tweeted, “We stand by allies, we don’t second guess them. Biden’s dithering on Israel weapons is bad policy and a terrible message to Israel, our allies and the world.”

Shortly before Biden spoke to CNN, US House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell penned a joint letter to the president blasting his decision last week to hold up the arms transfer to Israel.

The move “flies in the face of assurances provided regarding the timely delivery of security assistance to Israel” and “call[s] into question your pledge that your commitment to Israel’s security will remain ironclad,” the two wrote.

Biden signed off on the pause in an order conveyed last week to the Pentagon, according to US officials who were not authorized to comment on the matter. The White House National Security Council kept the decision out of the public eye for several days until it had a better understanding of the scope of Israel’s intensified military operations in Rafah and until Biden could deliver a long-planned speech on Tuesday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Across the aisle, progressive Democrats who have called for months for arms shipments to Israel to be halted or have more strings attached hailed the move as long overdue.

“Netanyahu should not have gotten a nickel so long as he continued this incredibly destructive war. I’m glad to see that the president is beginning to move in that direction,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told CNN.

Smoke billows from Israeli strikes on eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 7, 2024. (AFP)

But some in Biden’s party openly rejected the idea of halting arms supplies for Israel, including US Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who commented, “Hard disagree and deeply disappointing.”

Representative Ritchie Torres of New York told Axios he suspects Biden was “pandering to the far left.”

“It looks like election year politics was driving it. That’s my impression,” he added. “I’d like the president to do right by Israel and recognize that the far left is not representative of the rest of the country.”

Ted Deutch, a longtime Democratic congressman who now heads the American Jewish Committee, expressed dismay that Biden was taking action against Israel as it fights the Hamas terror group.

“President Biden should not take steps that could impair Israel’s ability to prevent Hamas from attacking it again and again — as its leaders have promised,” he wrote on social media. “The U.S. knows that defeating Hamas is critical to Israel’s long-term security and to defeating the global threat posed by the Iranian regime and its proxies.”

An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from a border position in southern Israel toward the Gaza Strip on May 8, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Pro-Israel lobby AIPAC said Biden’s comments were “dangerous and counter to American interest.”

Experts noted that the hold on the weapons transfer and Biden comments would likely wind up being mostly symbolic.

“[Biden] came to this Congress and he said pass legislation… you can’t come to members and get them to vote for your bill, your package, and then throw away part of the package,” Democratic Representative Brad Sherman of California told Jewish Insider, referring to the $14 billion aid package.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters walk from Columbia University down to Hunter College, May 6, 2024, in New York City. (SPENCER PLATT / Getty Images via AFP)

“Biden seems to be communicating his displeasure, and I regard these statements as a communicative act, rather than a strategic act,” he added.

Itamar Yaar, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, said even if symbolic, the US move was a sign of trouble and could become more of a problem if it is sustained.

“It’s not some kind of American embargo on American munitions support, but I think its some kind of diplomatic message to Mr. Netanyahu that he needs to take into consideration American interests more than he has over the last few months,” he said. “At least for now it will not impact Israeli capability but it’s some kind of a signal, a ‘Be careful.’”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

The US has said for months that it could not support a major Rafah offensive without a credible plan in place to ensure that civilians there would be protected. To date, Jerusalem has yet to present such a full-fledged plan to Washington, which contributed to the shift in Biden’s approach on Wednesday, according to a US official.

In the CNN interview, Biden clarified that the US will continue supplying Iron Dome missile interceptors and other defensive weapons to ensure that Israel can respond to attacks from adversaries across the region, such as last month’s massive missile and drone barrage from Iran.

“We’re not walking away from Israel’s security,” he said. “We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in [populated] areas.”

As reported by The Times of Israel