Biden faces pressure from foreign partners, rights groups and some fellow Democrats in Congress to impose conditions on arms transfers to Israel.

US President Joe Biden’s administration is weighing whether to go ahead with an $18bn arms transfer package to Israel that would include dozens of F-15 aircraft, according to the Reuters news agency. 

The sale of 25 F-15s has been under review since the US received the formal request in January 2023, Reuters reported, citing one of five sources familiar with the plans, long before Israel’s six-month-old military campaign in Gaza. This sale would boost that number to as many as 50 F-15s.

Accelerating delivery of the aircraft was among the top requests from Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, who visited Washington last week and held talks with US officials including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a second source said.

Biden faces pressure from foreign partners, human rights groups and some of his fellow Democrats in Congress to impose conditions on arms transfers to rein in Israel’s offensive in Gaza where health officials say at least 32,845 Palestinians have been killed, many of them civilians.

One US official said that even if formal notification were sent to Congress tomorrow and the deal was finalised immediately, the earliest the aircraft would be delivered would be 2029. Israel is seeking to beef up its already formidable fleet of warplanes not just for its continuing fight against Hamas but to ward off any further threat from the Tehran-backed Lebanese armed group Hezbollah on its northern border as well as from regional rival Iran.

House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul gave the green light for the F-15 sale on January 30, a committee aide told Reuters, when the relevant congressional offices responsible for approving major arms transfers were notified.

“Administration-Congressional deliberations on the F-15 case have already occurred,” the second source familiar with the matter said, but added that some of the four officers required to sign off on any arms transfers had yet to do so.

US law requires Congress to be notified of significant foreign military sales agreements and allows it to block such sales by passing a resolution of disapproval if there is concern about human rights violations or other issues, although no such resolution has ever passed and survived a presidential veto.

An informal review process allows the Democratic and Republican leaders of foreign affairs committees to vet such agreements before a formal notification to Congress.

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An Israeli air force F-15 fighter jet flies during an exhibition [File: Reuters]

Planes, munitions and support

The Israel package includes 50 F-15 aircraft, and support services, training, maintenance, sustainment and many years of contractor support during the jets’ lifecycle, which could typically go for up to two decades, the sources told Reuters.

One source said the Biden administration had expressed support to Israel for its F-15 request. Washington has publicly expressed concern about Israel’s proposed military offensive in Rafah, the southernmost city of the Gaza Strip where many Palestinians have taken shelter after being displaced by Israel’s assault.

Israel is also facing accusations it has violated international humanitarian law – a set of rules aimed at protecting civilians in armed conflicts, including the Geneva Conventions.

Witnesses and rights groups have accused Israel of indiscriminate bombing, targeting civilian infrastructure, mistreating detaineesextrajudicial executions and using humanitarian aid as a weapon of war, among other abuses.

But last week, the State Department said it had not found Israel to be in violation of international humanitarian law in any incident.

This sale is separate from the $14bn in aid for Israel that Biden has asked Congress to approve as part of a sweeping $95bn national security supplemental spending package that also includes aid for Ukraine and Taiwan.

Washington gives $3.8bn in annual military assistance to Israel, and the administration has so far resisted calls to condition any arms transfers even though senior US officials have criticised Israel over the high civilian death toll.

On Sunday, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley invoked the Easter holiday to condemn the war on Gaza.

“We must also recognise that America is complicit in this tragedy by resupplying Israel with bombs and failing to use America’s leverage to increase aid delivered into Gaza,” he wrote in a series of social media posts.

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Al Jazeera

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