Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress Will Be About More Than Bashing Biden

by June 2024
Photo credit: Douliery Olivier/ABACA via Reuters Connect.

Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to address a joint session of the United States Congress on June 13. But that day, while an ordinary day in Israel, was the second day of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot in the United States and the rest of the Diaspora. Jews in the Diaspora traditionally celebrate the beginning and end of major festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) for two days, not one as they do in Israel. Netanyahu therefore had to postpone his speech, and it was moved to July 24. That gave the Israeli prime minister an additional month to formulate his message to the Congress and the American people. 

He did not take long to do so. On June 18, in a short video that appeared to have been made in his office, Netanyahu asserted that “It’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel.” Speaking in English so as to address an American audience, he added that Secretary of State Tony Blinken has assured him that the Biden administration was working to remove any ‘bottlenecks” in weapons delivery. The Prime Minister then remarked, perhaps intending to be ironic, “I certainly hope that’s the case. It should be the case.”

Both Secretary Blinken and the White House quickly responded that they were baffled by Netanyahu’s comments. Blinken pointed out, “We, as you know, are continuing to review one shipment that President Biden has talked about with regard to 2,000-pound bombs because of our concerns about their use … in Rafah… But everything else is moving as it normally would.” 

A few days after he went public, Netanyahu repeated his assertion at his weekly cabinet meeting, this time in Hebrew. Justifying his decision to go public, he pointed out that the slowdown in American weapons shipments had been going on for some time. “Four months ago,” he stated, “there was a dramatic decrease in the munitions coming to Israel from the US…for long weeks, we turned to our American friends and requested that the shipments be expedited…we did so behind closed doors…After months in which there was no change in this situation, I decided to give this public expression.”

Yet Israel had already gone public months earlier. In mid-March, a senior Israeli official had complained that whereas American supplies had arrived quickly in Israel after the October 7 Hamas attack, “we are now finding that it’s very slow.”

The unnamed official said Israel was not receiving “sensitive guidance equipment” without identifying what that equipment might be. He did state that Israel’s stockpiles of 155 mm artillery shells and 120 mm tank shells were running low. That Netanyahu waited until June to reiterate what his “senior official” had stated months before, and did so after Biden approved another billion-dollar package for Israel that included the shells, can only be explained in terms of Netanyahu’s intention to hold back on raising the matter until he would address the Congress.

Netanyahu was not completely disingenuous when he leveled his complaint. Blinken, in his reply to the prime minister, did not mention that the United States was not moving especially quickly to meet Israel’s urgent request for Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits. Those were the kits which the “senior official” had described as “sensitive guidance equipment.” JDAMs are not stand-alone munitions like shells or bombs. As the US Air Force puts it, the JDAM is a “guidance tail kit that converts existing unguided free-fall bombs into accurate, adverse weather ‘smart’ munitions. With the addition of a new tail section that contains an inertial navigation system and a global positioning system guidance control unit, JDAM improves the accuracy of unguided, general purpose bombs in any weather condition.” Once fitted onto a 2,000 bomb, therefore, the JDAM guided system would be far less likely to cause what military officials and analysts politely term “collateral damage.” And a reduction in collateral damage is exactly what the White House has long demanded from Israeli operations in Gaza.

Moreover, when Washington wishes to ship armaments to an ally quickly, it certainly can do so. Indeed, I recall that during the Falklands War, the Reagan administration created an open-ended aid package for the UK that enabled me, as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s coordinator, to ship any weapons that the British determined they needed without having to obtain additional Congressional approval.

There can be little doubt that, as many analysts have pointed out, Netanyahu intends to use his record fourth appearance before a joint session of Congress speech to bash Biden, much as he attacked President Barack Obama in a joint session in 2015.

He has other objectives as well. The prime minister needs to shore up his diminished political support at home by demonstrating that he stands up for Israel even when it means confronting the Jewish State’s closest ally. Though some recent polls show that Netanyahu is gaining electoral strength, Israeli polls are notoriously inaccurate. Indeed, on a recent visit to Israel, I encountered no one—either on the political left or the hard right—who had anything good to say about him. Even those on Israel’s extreme right would only go so far as to say that however bad he was, there was no one better. That is hardly a vote of confidence in his leadership.

Netanyahu has a third objective as well. He is seeking to give Israel some relief from American pressure over its management of the Gaza operation, while at the same time ramping up Israel’s pressure for additional aid, most notably those JDAM kits. Until now he has not specified which systems he accuses the White House of withholding. His speech to the Congress affords him the perfect opportunity to do so.

Dov S. Zakheim
Dov S. Zakheim is Chair of the Board of Advisors of the JST, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Vice Chair of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former US under secretary of defense (2001–2004) and deputy under secretary of defense (1985–1987).
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