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Biden administration set to greenlight $18 billion sale of F-15 fighter jets to Israel

The Biden administration is close to approving the sale of as many as 50 American-made F-15 fighter jets to Israel, in a deal expected to be worth more than $18 billion, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The transaction, which would amount to the largest US foreign military sale to Israel since the country went to war with Hamas on October 7, comes as the administration is also expected to notify Congress soon of a large new sale of precision-guided munitions kits to Israel, the people said.

The new sales of some of the US’ most sophisticated weaponry underscore the extent to which the US continues to support Israel militarily, even as Biden administration officials criticize Israel’s operations in Gaza, which have killed more than 32,000 Palestinians since October, according to the Gaza ministry of health.

The sale is likely to be hotly debated in Congress, particularly by members of the president’s own party. US weapons sales to Israel have come under intense scrutiny in recent months and Democratic lawmakers have called for restricting military aid to Israeli until it allows more humanitarian aid into Gaza and does more to protect civilians there.

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel in October, which killed over 1,200 Israelis, the US has made more than 100 foreign military sales to Israel. Most of those have fallen under the specific dollar amount that requires a notification to Congress, an official familiar with the matter previously told CNN.

But an $18 billion F-15 sale is large enough that it requires congressional notification, and the administration informally notified the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees of the F-15 sale in late January, according to two of the people familiar with the matter.

The informal notification gives lawmakers and congressional staff time to review the details and ask questions before the State Department sends a formal notification to all lawmakers.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. James Risch, has already given his approval on the sale, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. A congressional aide told CNN that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul has also approved the transaction to proceed to formal congressional notification.

But Sen. Ben Cardin, the Democratic chairman of the committee, as well as the Democratic ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Rep. Greg Meeks, can still hold up the sale if they raise objections.

If there are no objections, the State Department will send a formal notification to all lawmakers, who will then have 30 days to block the sale via a joint resolution of disapproval. Congress has never successfully blocked a proposed arms sale through such a resolution, which has to be passed by both chambers, according to the Congressional Research Service.

There are also growing concerns among Democrats over the Biden administration’s continued practice of sharing intelligence with Israel, which was expanded on President Joe Biden’s orders in the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas.

Some of that intelligence support has been in the form of so-called raw intelligence that Israel is meant to use to locate hostages, but could also be used to identify Hamas targets, some sources told CNN. Hamas fighters are often embedded in civilian areas, officials have said.

Meanwhile, a growing number of US diplomats are becoming frustrated over the administration’s reluctance to use its leverage over Israel to change their approach to the ongoing war.

“What you hear about the frustrations within the administration over the Israel policy, it is real,” one US diplomat told CNN on condition of anonymity. “We are being asked to act in a way that ignores what we are seeing on the ground.”

The diplomats also told CNN they were frustrated with the administration’s attempts to downplay the US abstention from a UN vote last week on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. What could have been a bold message to Israel was diluted by the US insisting the resolution was non-binding and consistent with existing US policy, these diplomats said.

These disaffected diplomats said they would like to see the US threaten future arms sales to Israel to help curtail the bloody fighting, but the proposed F-15 and precision-guided munitions sales indicate that the administration is not planning to restrict military assistance any time soon.

F-15s won’t be delivered immediately

Unlike the precision guided munitions, the new F-15s would need to be built from scratch. A US official said there are no plans to expedite delivery of the jets to Israel so, if approved, they would not be delivered to Israel for at least five years.

Israeli officials have been urging the US to expedite the timeline if possible, CNN previously reported.

Along with up to 50 individual jets, the package also includes engines, gun systems, radars and navigation systems for the jets, three of the sources said. The package provides construction and contractor support and logistical infrastructure for training, sustainment, and maintenance of the fleet, as well as a mid-life update for Israel’s current fleet of F-15s.

A State Department spokesperson said, “We are unable to confirm potential or pending US arms transfers before they are formally notified to Congress.”

The Biden administration also quietly authorized a sale of F-35 fighter jets to Israel last week, the sources said. That sale did not require congressional notification because the intended sale was already notified to Congress in 2008.

The State Department spokesperson said that “as a matter of practicality, major procurements, like Israel’s F-35 program for example, are often broken out into several cases over many years.”

Sources told CNN that it was unclear why the Biden administration would approve such a large sale now, during an election year when the president’s policy towards Israel is under a microscope. The sale is not particularly urgent, given that Israel won’t be getting the jets for another few years, anyway.

Josh Paul, who worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs for over a decade before resigning in October over the US’ ongoing arms transfers to Israel, said the US clearly thinks Israel needs the equipment “for its long-term defense.”

“But there is a sense on Israel’s side that right now the doors are wide open for anything they want, so this is the time to ask for it,” he said. “Who knows how long the barn doors will be open for?”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNN about the proposed sales.

“The United States has a decades-long commitment to Israel’s security,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Monday. “Israel is surrounded by entities that are sworn to its destruction, not just Hamas, but Iran and proxy groups that Iran sponsors, Hezbollah among them, who have repeatedly talked about their desire for the destruction of Israel. We believe Israel has every right to defend itself against those opponents.”

Growing concerns about US intelligence sharing

When it comes to intelligence sharing with Israel, the US has offered the Israeli government a significant amount of processing capacity, according to two sources familiar with the matter — essentially, computing power that allows Israel to sift through mass amounts of intercepts, imagery and other raw intelligence to extract meaningful trends or insights.

In theory, the intelligence community is not allowed to share information with partners that would be used to violate the international laws of armed conflict, and US officials insist that they are not giving Israel what’s known as “targeting intelligence”; in this case, intelligence used to target precise Hamas fighters or positions.

Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in November that the US military is “not participating in IDF target development,” and that their involvement is solely intended to help find the hostages.

But several sources familiar with US sharing efforts who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity said that is a distinction without a difference. Once the US provides a piece of intelligence to Israel, it has no control over how Israel combines it with other information, and there’s nothing to stop Israel from using that information to target Hamas operatives, the sources said.

“Israel provides assurances that operations making use of U.S. intelligence are conducted in a manner consistent with international law, including the Law of Armed Conflict, which calls for the protection of civilians,” a senior intelligence official told CNN in response to questions about the intelligence sharing.

The intelligence has continued to flow, sources said, even as the Biden administration has been pressing Israel to do more to prevent civilian casualties.

“Absent stronger oversight, it is impossible to discern how allies and partners are using U.S. intelligence in military operations,” Steven Katz, a former Army officer currently working as a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, wrote in a piece on the national security blog Just Security, advocating for greater congressional oversight of intelligence sharing.

“In certain cases, the IC may be providing indirect support through intelligence sharing for partner operations conducted in a manner inconsistent with U.S. law and policy,” he said.

The State Department has a process in place to investigate reports that civilians have been killed by US weapons wielded by other nations, according to Katz, but no law exists requiring the intelligence community to track how US intelligence-sharing may contribute to civilian deaths.

A provision in an annual intelligence bill now before Congress would require the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to submit an annual report to Congress detailing civilian casualties caused by foreign government operations in which US-shared intelligence played a “significant role.” But that bill has yet to be passed.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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