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How Israel got American weapons behind Obama's back

"Wait, we sold you what?"
"Wait, we sold you what?"
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

An amazing Wall Street Journal story today reveals just how bad US-Israel relations have gotten during the Gaza crisis: Israel is going behind President Obama's back, to the Pentagon, to get restocked with American weapons.

How can this happen? When Congress passes bills funding foreign military aid, it doesn't always itemize every item that every country gets. Look at the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, for instance, and you'll find that it says "not less than $3,100,000,000 shall be available for grants only for Israel" with only a little more qualification. It's up to the president and the Pentagon to figure out what the Israelis should have and give it to them.

Normally, this is pretty routine — Israel and the US cooperate very closely on defense. But according to Journal reporter Adam Entous, the US and Israel have been at each other's throats during the Gaza. The Obama administration were concerned that Israel's ground incursion into Gaza beginning on July 17th was using disproportionate force — for example, using hard-to-target artillery fire in heavily populated areas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thought Americans had no business micromanaging how he defended his country from Hamas rocket fire.

So instead of asking Obama for more weapons, Israel went straight to the Pentagon offices on July 20th. The Pentagon went through their standard process, and afterwards approved Israeli requests for mortar and tank shells. Then, on July 30th, Israeli artillery shells hit a UN shelter for displaced Palestinians. They were reportedly US-made.

"We were blindsided," one U.S. diplomat told Entous. The State Department and the White House had just discovered the Pentagon's arms transfers.

After that, US-Israeli relations quietly collapsed. The next three paragraphs from the Journal's story are astonishing — particularly the part where Netanyahu commanded that Obama was "not to ever second-guess me again" about the Gaza war:

The last straw for many U.S. diplomats came on Aug. 2 when they say Israeli officials leaked to the media that Mr. Netanyahu had told the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, that the Obama administration was "not to ever second-guess me again" about how to deal with Hamas.

The White House and State Department have sought to regain greater control over U.S.-Israeli policy. They decided to require White House and State Department approval for even routine munitions requests by Israel, officials say.

Instead of being handled as a military-to-military matter, each case is now subject to review-slowing the approval process and signaling to Israel that military assistance once taken for granted is now under closer scrutiny.

It's a striking story for any number of reasons. US-Israel relations periodically get rocky, but defense cooperation usually remains stable. If Obama is imposing a higher standard for arms transfers, and generally slowing military cooperation, that's a pretty significant development.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, Entous' reporting illustrates why the US is so bad at pressuring Israel. The United States and Israel are bound so tightly together in so many ways that Israel has all sorts of avenues to get around the limited pressure that administrations might want to bring to bear. US officials admitted to Entous that their influence over Israel has been "weakened" during the Gaza war. That's because Netanyahu "has used his sway in Washington, from the Pentagon and Congress to lobby groups, to defuse US diplomatic pressure on his government over the past month."

The American public and Congress both overwhelmingly support Israel and sympathize with it over its enemies during conflicts. That helps maintain a strong US-Israel relationship, even when the leaders of both countries can't stand each other. It also seriously ties America's hands when the two countries disagree.