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US finalising F-35 sale to Israel as tensions over Gaza war plan boil

Congress was notified of the $2.5bn sale of F-35 Fighter Jets in 2008, but Israel may take possession of them as it readies a Rafah invasion
Displaced Palestinians inspect the damage to their tents following overnight Israeli bombardment at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, on 19 March 2024 (Said Khatib/AFP)

The US is planning to move ahead with several major arms transfers to Israel, despite simmering tensions between the Biden administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Part of the package of arms transfers that the US will notify to Congress is a new shipment of precision-guided munitions worth more than $1bn dollars. In addition, the US plans to move ahead with a $2.5bn sale of F-35 fighter jets, Josh Paul, the former director of congressional and public affairs for the State Department’s bureau of political-military affairs, said.

The sales are notable because they come amid rising tensions between Biden and Netanyahu over the course of the fighting in Gaza.

On Monday, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said that Biden warned his Israeli counterpart it would be a “mistake” to launch a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah, the southern Gaza city where 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering.

Israel is set to send a technical team to the US to discuss its invasion plans as early as this week, Sullivan said. But on Tuesday, Netanyahu reaffirmed his intention to launch a “ground incursion” into Rafah.

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Rafah is just one area where Netanyahu has frustrated the Biden administration’s policy goals, including surging more humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave and bolstering the Palestinian Authority to assume post-war governance in Gaza.

Sullivan characterised Biden and Netanyahu’s call as “businesslike”, saying that Biden rejected the “strawman” argument that opposing an invasion of Rafah meant there was daylight between the US and Israel over defeating Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Tensions came to a boil last week after Biden praised a speech by Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer calling for elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu. The US president was also caught on a hot mic, saying he needed to have a “come to Jesus” moment with Netanyahu.

“Despite the change in tone regarding humanitarian assistance and the very real frustrations with Netanyahu, below the surface the weapons not only continue to flow, but there has been no shift in the thinking whatsoever when it comes to the underlying defence trade relationship,” Paul said.

A report in Axios on Tuesday seemed to downplay tensions between the two, reporting that two sources with knowledge of the call said President Biden told Netanyahu that "he is not trying to undermine him politically".

More than 100 arms sales

Arms transfers are the US’s greatest source of leverage with Israel. The US provides its Middle East ally with $3.5bn a year in military aid. In addition, the White House has earmarked almost $15bn more for Israel that is stuck in Congress.

Since the Hamas-led 7 October attacks on southern Israel and the subsequent war on Gaza, the Biden administration has worked around Congress to surge military aid to Israel.

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The F-35 deal that the US is moving to approve falls under the category of foreign military (FMS) sales, which means that Israel is using sovereign funds to purchase the Lockheed Martin-produced fighter jet. Congress was originally notified of the sale in 2008, meaning the administration is not obliged to make the deal public.

A State Department spokesperson referred MEE to the government of Israel when asked about the procurement. Israel's embassy in Washington DC didn't respond to MEE's request for comment by the time of publication. 

While it’s not uncommon for foreign military sales to remain open for years before being finalised, the F-35 deal would come as some in Congress press for greater oversight of the US’s weapons transfers to Israel.

The Biden administration has delivered more than 100 different sales of military aid to Israel since October, including thousands of precision-guided munitions, small-diameter bombs and bunker-buster bombs.

But only two approved military sales to Israel were made public since the start of the war. One sale consisted of $106m worth of tank ammunition, and the other was for $147.5m worth of components needed to make 155mm artillery shells.

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