Israel privately conveys ‘deep frustration’ that US confirmed weapons holdup

A senior Biden administration official called it ‘rich‘ that Israel bristled at the leak when Israeli officials first revealed the news.

In closed-door talks with U.S. officials, the Israeli government has expressed “deep frustration” at both the Biden administration’s delay of a weapons shipment and U.S. confirmations to the media of the once-private halt. The publicity, they argue, could jeopardize hostage negotiations.

That message, detailed to POLITICO by three people from the U.S. and Israel familiar with discussions that have taken place over the last 24 hours, is a sign that U.S.-Israeli relations are being strained to an extent not previously known.

For months, President Joe Biden has reserved criticism of Israel’s war against Hamas for private settings. But the decision to withhold advanced weapons has broken out into the open, threatening to weaken any influence Biden hoped to have over the next steps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take, namely ordering a full-scale invasion of Rafah.

A senior Biden administration official, like others granted anonymity to detail a sensitive diplomatic moment, said the U.S. found it “a bit rich” that Israel is upset about weapons-pause leaks when it was Israeli officials who first confirmed it to Axios over the weekend. U.S. officials later told POLITICO and other outlets that Biden delayed the transfer of bombs Israel could potentially use in Rafah to target Hamas — and endanger civilians.

In a Senate hearing Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers the U.S. would still stand by Israel as the war proceeds. “We’re going to continue to do what’s necessary to ensure that Israel has the means to defend itself. But that said, we are currently reviewing some near-term security assistance shipments in the context of unfolding events in Rafah,” he said.

The war is at a precarious point. Israel sent ground troops and tanks into Rafah this week, seizing the Gaza side of the city’s crossing with Egypt and closing another checkpoint at Kerem Shalom. As of Wednesday, Kerem Shalom is partially open but the Rafah crossing remains closed, winnowing the amount of aid that can reach Palestinians desperately in need of food, water, medicine and other provisions.

A key reason why the U.S. stopped the transfer of a congressionally approved transfer of 1,800 2,000-pound and 1,700 500-pound bombs was to protect civilians in Rafah.

“As Israeli leaders seemed to approach a decision point on such an operation, we began to carefully review proposed transfers of particular weapons to Israel that might be used in Rafah,” another senior administration official told reporters Tuesday night, noting that the U.S. focused particularly on the 2,000-pound bombs and “the impact they could have in dense urban settings as we have seen in other parts of Gaza.”

U.S. officials continue to say Israel has not launched a major operation in Rafah, adding the campaign has been fairly limited and likely designed to increase pressure on Hamas to accept a cease-fire.

But Israeli leaders have signaled their forces may wade deeper into the southern Gaza city, especially if a hostage deal doesn’t come together over the next few days.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, speaking during a visit to the Gaza border, said Tuesday: “This operation will continue until we eliminate Hamas in the Rafah area and the entire Gaza strip, or until the first hostage returns.”

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.