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Opinion | Why Does the U.S. Arm Ukraine With Fanfare and Israel in Secret?

BusinessOpinion | Why Does the U.S. Arm Ukraine With Fanfare and Israel in Secret?

President Biden flanked by Javelin antitank systems in 2022 as he discussed arming Ukraine.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

When the Biden administration ships arms to Ukraine, it pulls out the megaphones. It announces its shipments and hails its own efforts “to support the brave Ukrainian people as they defend their country,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it last month. The White House emphasizes transparency about aid provided to Ukraine, saying it wants to be clear how “that money has been spent.”

It’s a different story when the destination is Israel. A few details leak in the American or Israeli press, but overall, when sending arms to the Israel Defense Forces, the Biden administration seems to prefer the sound of silence.

Transparency about arms transfers takes on special significance now that President Biden has signed a landmark $95 billion foreign aid package, approved after long delays in the House of Representatives. That package will pay for billions of dollars of arms flowing to Ukraine, Israel and other nations. As soon as the bill became law, the administration issued new announcements about weapons shipments to Ukraine, but not about transfers to Israel.

Press releases about military aid for Ukraine and Israel

Source: U.S. Department of State; U.S. Department of Defense; Internet Archive

Note: Multiple press releases have been published on the same day. The update count is based on web snapshots recorded by the Internet Archive.

How do we know what weapons have been shipped?

In the case of Ukraine, it’s easy. The State Department lists much of the military hardware sent to Ukraine in a fact sheet that has been regularly updated, most recently on Wednesday. But so far, there have been only two news releases from the Defense Department, on Dec. 9 and 29, about the approval of emergency military sales to Israel, plus a fact sheet in October providing a general overview of historical sales.

U.S. government disclosures about military aid to Ukraine and Israel

A tally of information about U.S. military aid sent to Ukraine since the Russian attack on Feb. 24, 2022, and aid sent to Israel since Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 as reported in fact sheets and news releases by the State and Defense Departments.

Some information emerges from classified briefings. The Washington Post reported last month that the administration had told Congress that it conducted more than 100 arms transfers to Israel, including an enormous range of missiles, bombs and small arms. The Israeli press has reported that 244 cargo planes and 20 ships have delivered more than 10,000 tons of U.S. military assistance to Israel.

In fairness, weapons transfers to each country fall under different authorities and involve different reporting requirements. But Josh Paul, who as a State Department official spent 11 years as a director in the office overseeing arms transfers, before resigning in protest over the Gaza war, says it is clear that the State Department treats them differently.

“There’s no question the department is providing information to Congress that it is not required to when it comes to Ukraine authorizations, and doing so in an unclassified manner, whereas for Israel it is providing less information, and doing so in classified form,” he told us.

The backdrop is that President Biden has faced periodic criticism for not sending more equipment to Ukraine, so it’s in his interest to have the State Department shine a spotlight on those shipments. The announcements also encourage European allies to send more weapons to Ukraine. Conversely, the Democratic Party is deeply divided by the war in Gaza, with some Democrats in the House and Senate calling on him to send fewer bombs to Israel — and announcements about arms transfers might amplify that debate.

I think the administration makes sure that the word gets out to the pro-Israel community that these things have been transferred but doesn’t want to inflame the not pro-Israel community,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “The word gets out anyway, but it’s not a headline.”

Both Ukraine and Israel depend on American weapons shipments. Ukraine has lost ground to Russian forces in part because it is running low on both troops and munitions. Israel is talking about invading the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, and there is an ever-present risk of war with Hezbollah in Lebanon or with Iran. A major attack by Iranian missiles and drones on Israel this month, after Israel struck an Iranian compound in Syria and killed military commanders, underscored the risk of escalations that could lead to a larger war in the region.

There is another distinction worth noting. Ukraine is using American weaponry primarily against invading troops. Israel did face a brutal incursion by Hamas on Oct. 7, but since then, it has been using American weaponry in ways that appear to have killed thousands of women and children. Hundreds of aid workers, medical workers and journalists are among the dead in Gaza, and the White House probably is not eager to highlight its role in killings of civilians.

On April 4, during a tense phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden threatened to put conditions on future military assistance if Israel did not work harder to reduce civilian casualties. Still, Biden seems eager to avoid a rupture and to keep the supply of weapons and ammunition flowing. Democratic senators have pressed the administration to use its leverage and to improve reporting to Congress. In response, the administration issued National Security Memorandum 20, which requires a report to Congress by May 8 on whether Israel is adhering to its humanitarian obligations under international law.

We know very little about how American weapons are used once they reach the Israeli military. Are they used in Gaza, and how? Are they flowing to the West Bank? Is there a possibility that they reach battalions that the United States is considering sanctioning because of alleged human rights violations?

Transparency is the lifeblood of democracies. For the same reason that the White House takes care to explain how taxpayer dollars are spent on military support for Ukraine, the administration owes it to Americans to be forthcoming about weapons flown to Israel, even if it finds disclosure to be politically uncomfortable.

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