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Biden says he would stop weapons shipments to Israel if it invades Rafah

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We turn to Gaza and a question - can President Biden's words change what Israel does?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: If they're going to Rafa, I'm not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafa, to deal with the cities, to deal with that problem.

FADEL: The president's remarks to CNN followed confirmation that the U.S. had already put a pause on a shipment of more than 3,000 bombs out of concern Israel could use these huge bombs against a city with more than a million civilians, including many who were ordered by Israel to flee Northern Gaza. Bombs like those, Biden acknowledged in that same interview, have already killed Palestinian civilians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to go ahead with the operation anyway and issued a statement saying that if needed, Israel would fight, as he put it, with our fingernails. So let's ask Jonah Blank about this. He's a political scientist at the Rand Corporation and a former foreign policy adviser for Biden when he was in the Senate. Good morning. Thanks for being on the program.

JONAH BLANK: Thanks for having me, Leila.

FADEL: So what's your reaction to what amounts to an ultimatum from President Biden - more weapons shipment only if Netanyahu backs away from Southern Gaza?

BLANK: Well, I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be well advised to heed this ultimatum. One of the things about President Biden is that he can be very flexible and very flexible and very flexible right up until the point where he's pushed too far, and then foreign leaders who have pressed him have often found that he is really not willing to be much more flexible.

FADEL: I mean, it's interesting 'cause Netanyahu has defied him pretty publicly several times now. Does Netanyahu take Biden seriously?

BLANK: Well, he doesn't seem to have taken him as seriously as he should have up until now. There have been a few moments where he has gone too far, been pushed back and accepted that. The most notable came after the Israeli Defense Forces killed the workers for the World Central Kitchen. And that, of course, caused a huge outcry, including the fact that one of them was an American citizen. He did then step back after that, but we'll see whether he takes this as seriously as it definitely is intended.

FADEL: Now, you've written that a case could be made that Biden is legally required to stop funding Israel's war. How?

BLANK: Well, there are at least three different laws that come into play here. One is the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act. One is the Leahy Amendment on Foreign Assistance Act. And one is the conventional arms transfer policy, which is a different type of legislation. The clear text of all three of these pieces of legislation really would seem to prohibit or restrict the ability of the U.S. government to transfer aid. This, I should emphasize, is under existing U.S. law.

FADEL: Now, I know one shipment of weapons was paused. Others may be stopped in the future if Biden follows through on this threat if this invasion goes forward. But there are still billions of dollars worth of U.S. arms in the pipeline for Israel. So does pausing a shipment or a few in the future actually impact anything?

BLANK: Well, this particular shipment doesn't have a huge impact in of itself. It's a shot across the bow. And it is important. This is the first time since 1982 that any shipment has been publicly stopped in all of these decades since. The last time was by President Ronald Reagan when Israel was conducting operations in Lebanon, which were causing enormous numbers of civilian casualties.

FADEL: Right. He banned cluster weapons for six years. We've seen a lot of criticism from Republicans saying Biden is abandoning an ally. As you point out, it was a Republican administration who did this the last time. I mean, it's quite unusual, but - what Biden is threatening to do. Why is he doing it?

BLANK: Well, he's just reached the end, I think, of his tolerance of Netanyahu's actions. Thirty-four thousand people have been killed - the large majority of them women and children. I think that this really was the point of President Biden saying, we cannot tolerate this anymore. We'll see whether Netanyahu listens.

FADEL: Jonah Blank is a former adviser to then-senator, now-President Biden. He's now at the Rand Corporation. Thank you so much.

BLANK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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