Biden’s Italian Strike

The ongoing US policy of slow-walking munitions deliveries to Israel isn’t about Rafah

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
An airman unstraps an inert Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) during the Lone Star Challenge at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, on July 13, 2023. (US Air Force photo)
An airman unstraps an inert Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) during the Lone Star Challenge at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, on July 13, 2023. (US Air Force photo)

No sooner had Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Biden administration on Tuesday of withholding arms shipments for Israel than American officials depicted him as delusional. “We … do not know what he’s talking about,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre explained to reporters. Yes, she said, the Biden administration is withholding one single shipment of 2,000-pound bombs, out of fear that they might be used in densely populated Gaza, but “there are … no other pauses or holds in place.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Europe after having met with Netanyahu in Israel, repeated the claims of Jean-Pierre almost verbatim. Besides the 2,000-pound bombs, he explained, “everything else is moving as it normally would move.”

But this assertion of normalcy is easily refuted. Last month, Politico reported that an order by Israel for Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs)—converter kits that turn “dumb” bombs into “smart” bombs—“came up for license in December 2023, and the administration has been sitting on it ever since.” The JDAMs, Politico further reported, are but one of “multiple” sales that the State Department “is reviewing.”

President Biden and his team are asking us to believe that when they arbitrarily place an arms shipment bound for Israel “under review,” they are following routine procedures rather than denying weapons to Israel. Europeans call the tactic of slowing or stopping work by meticulously adhering to rules and regulations an “Italian strike.”

It is hard to imagine a legal and bureaucratic process that invites this tactic more readily than American foreign military sales. The laws and policies governing sales require defense industries, the State Department, the Defense Department, and Congress to work closely with one another. If you ask representatives of any allied country about their experiences of the foreign military sales machinery, for the next two hours they will tell you tales of bureaucratic absurdity worthy of Kafka. The process is so convoluted that President Biden can place a transaction on hold simply by leaving it to rot in an interagency labyrinth of mandated reviews, verifications, and notifications.

The purpose of the Italian strike is to force the Israelis into dependence on the United States, to deny them the ability to make long-term plans—namely plans regarding Hezbollah and Iran.

Nevertheless, when Biden deems a transaction to be a national security priority, he has the power to free it from the labyrinth. His office has the authority to force cooperation on the Departments of State and Defense, as well as to mediate between the executive and legislative branches. Israel, of course, is popular on Capitol Hill. Legislators, therefore, will place no obstacles in the way of delivering weapons to it in a timely fashion. During this war, however, Congress has yet to find a trusted interlocutor in the White House. “The administration is very much trying to keep Congress in the dark on a lot of their decision-making,” an aide on Capitol Hill told Politico.

The beauty of the Italian strike is that it offers its leaders plausible deniability. Some military sales to Israel have proceeded without delay; some have slowed but not stopped; still others have been halted altogether. Transactions that were once stopped have started again. Biden and his team point to the restarting of stalled initiatives as proof of noninterference by the White House. Each new instance of stoppage that comes to light they attribute to this or that regulation. As Netanyahu and his defenders complain, the administration depicts them as delusional.

This gaslighting has successfully hidden the true nature of Biden’s policy from the public eye. To be sure, some press outlets, such as Politico, have poked holes in the administration’s cover story, but they have failed to recognize the Italian strike for what it is: namely, a coherent policy hiding behind the appearance of incoherence. Even while treating some of the details of the cover story with skepticism, the press has almost uniformly accepted the general framing of the administration, which presents the disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem as a fight over the Rafah campaign and how best to prevent civilian deaths.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden told CNN’s Erin Burnett in early May, referring to 2,000-pound bombs. “I made it clear that if [the Israelis] go into Rafah … I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with … the cities.” But a close examination of the timeline reveals that the Italian strike began no later than last December, many months before the fight over Israel’s Rafah campaign had ever begun. What accounts for the early application of pressure?

For some clues to the answer, we might look to the Israeli delegation, headed by the director general of Israel’s Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, who traveled quietly to Washington in January to meet top administration officials and executives of defense industries. The trip received very little press coverage. Only the Israeli news outlet Walla reported on the trip, and the story was lost amidst the dramatic news from Gaza. Zamir, Walla reported, had two main goals: to shorten the time it takes to produce and supply weapons for the IDF and to increase “the scope of aid.” In other words, Zamir came shopping for more weapons, more kinds of weapons, and for a faster delivery of them.

The Americans responded by calling the Italian strike. The Biden team, according to Walla, disappointed Zamir and sent him away, saying “they would study the issue, but that no answer would be given before the [American] elections so as not to allow political considerations to influence the administration’s decisions.” The rationale was transparently bogus, but the message was clear enough. The Biden administration intended to keep the Israelis on a short leash. Why?

The Americans were undoubtedly seeking to counter the thinking that had brought the Israeli delegation to Washington in the first place. Gen. Zamir made clear to the Biden team that he had come shopping not for weapons to prosecute war in Gaza, but out of concerns, according to Walla’s report, about “the ongoing tensions with Hezbollah along the northern border and with other Iranian proxy forces across the Middle East.”

Hezbollah represents the most formidable direct military threat that Israel faces. A full-scale conflict with it will burn up an enormous amount of equipment and ammunition in a very short period, and it risks drawing Iran more directly into the war. The Israelis came to Washington to stock up, to be ready for the conflict should it erupt. The Americans, by contrast, seek to restrain them. The purpose of the Italian strike is to force the Israelis into dependence on the United States, to deny them the ability to make long-term plans—namely, plans regarding Hezbollah and Iran.

To the extent that the administration even admits it is withholding arms, it justifies its actions by expressing concern over civilian deaths in Gaza. The Biden administration sees a gauzy humanitarianism as a defensible explanation, before the American public, for its policy of restraining Israel. Almost all press outlets in the United States depicted Netanyahu’s protest over the withholding of weapons as the latest move in the fight over Rafah, but his video statement referenced Iran, not Gaza. “Israel, America’s closest ally,” he said, is “fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies.”

The administration has little hope that the American people will understand why it is preventing Israel from defending itself against attacks from Hezbollah and Iran. Publicly, therefore, it has drawn the line in the sand in Rafah and screamed about civilian deaths. Privately, however, it has its eyes locked like a laser on the Lebanese-Israeli border. If a full-scale war kicks off in the north, the Obama-Biden policy of achieving “equilibrium” in the Middle East by integrating Iran and its proxies into the regional order comes crashing down.

Read the article in Tablet.