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The U.S. is withholding aid to Israel. Will it work?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week President Biden's ironclad support for Israel started to sound a little more complicated. The Biden administration paused a shipment of more than 3,000 bombs to Israel. On Wednesday, the president told CNN he will withhold more American weapons if the Israeli military does what it has promised to do and launches a major ground invasion into Rafah in Southern Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I made it clear that If they go into Rafah - they haven't gone into Rafah yet. If they go into Rafah, I'm not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah.

KELLY: OK. Quick fact-check - Israel has already begun an incursion into parts of Rafah. Israel and the White House say, so far, this is a limited operation. So how big a shift is this by President Biden? Well, to consider that, we're joined by Ambassador Dennis Ross, longtime diplomat for the U.S. and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ambassador Ross, good to speak with you.

DENNIS ROSS: Always good to be with you. Thank you.

KELLY: How big a deal is this for the U.S. to pause weapons delivery to Israel?

ROSS: Well, it's certainly not unprecedented. We've seen it done in the past. Ronald Reagan suspended F-16 sales and deliveries on three different occasions. It's not something that administrations typically do. But it is obviously something that presidents are willing to do when they feel that the message that they've been conveying to the Israeli Prime Minister is not being either received the right way or he's not getting the kind of responsiveness that he'd like to see.

KELLY: Yeah. I was wondering how radical a policy shift it represents, to what extent this may be Biden, seven months now into the war in Gaza, choosing to say out loud, say publicly what he has perhaps been saying privately to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

ROSS: I do think that's the case. I think you put your finger on something - that his frustration level has been increasing because he feels that he's had quite a number of phone calls and conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu. His public statements in Israel about Rafah fly in the face of the kind of things that the president is concerned about, and in many ways, also fly in the face of a promise that the prime minister has made to the president, which was he would ensure that there were credible evacuation plans. And I think what the president was seeing - very tough talk on Rafah without those kinds of moves being made in terms of evacuation.

KELLY: As we have watched Republicans here in the U.S. respond to President Biden's announcement on a weapons pause - we've heard from Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, among others, saying, this is President Biden abandoning an ally in the middle of a war. What do you think?

ROSS: I don't buy that. Look. This is the administration that went to the Congress and asked for the provision of $16 billion of assistance to Israel. They have held up one item - 2,000 pound bombs that they've held up. They're not indicating they're going to walk away from our commitment to Israeli security. And I wouldn't want us, when it comes to arms, to raise real questions about that. We don't want to increase the prospect of a wider war in the region. So having a clear message that we stand by Israel's security is important. I think the president is still saying that, but he's also saying, we have interests, too, and we're going to act on those interests.

KELLY: To go back to the history, you mentioned that this is not the first time the U.S. has paused weapons or aid to Israel to try to leverage an outcome the U.S. wanted, that Reagan did it. When the U.S. has done this in past, has it worked?

ROSS: The irony is it has not tended to work. Part of it is there is this ethos in Israel that, ultimately, we have to defend ourselves by ourselves. With Reagan, the second time that F-16s were suspended and Israel was extending its law on administration of Golan Heights, Begin's response to our ambassador when he came in was to say, we are not a banana republic. Having said all that, we tend to forget that, on April 13, which is not very long ago, Israel had active intervention to help in its defense.

KELLY: So when Israel was responding to incoming missile strikes from Iran.

ROSS: Yes, that's right. One-third of what was launched against Israel was intercepted by the United States and some of our partners in the Central Command. And the idea that it can afford to act on its own, I think, ignores what is the current reality. And ultimately, you have an administration that has been very supportive of it. So I think Israel should be careful not to draw too firm a line in response to what the president has done.

KELLY: Ambassador Dennis Ross, thank you.

ROSS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.