Netanyahu says Blinken assured him US will unblock weapons shipments

By Steven Scheer and Humeyra Pamuk

JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had assured him that the Biden administration was working to lift restrictions on arms deliveries to Israel, an exchange the top U.S. diplomat declined to confirm.

In a rare expose of normally private high-level diplomatic conversations, Netanyahu said that when he met Blinken in Israel last week, he told him that it was "inconceivable" that in the past few months Washington was "withholding weapons and ammunitions" to Israel.

"Israel, America's closest ally, fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies," Netanyahu said and added that Blinken assured him that the administration was working "day and night" to remove such bottlenecks.

The Biden administration in May paused a shipment of 2,000 pound and 500-pound bombs due to concern over the impact they could have in densely-populated areas but Israel was still due to get billions of dollars worth of U.S. weaponry.

Speaking at a news conference in Washington, Blinken repeatedly declined to detail his exchange with Netanyahu or confirm whether he had given the Israeli leader such assurances.

He said weapons shipments with the exception of one with large bombs were moving as usual given Israel faced security threats beyond Gaza, including from Hezbollah and Iran.

"We, as you know, are continuing to review one shipment that President Biden has talked about with regard to 2000-pound bombs because of our concerns about their use in a densely populated area, like Rafah. That remains under review," Blinken said.

"But everything else is moving as it normally would move, and again with the perspective of making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against this multiplicity of challenges.”

Biden in April warned Israel that the U.S. would stop supplying it weapons if Israeli forces make a major invasion of Rafah, a refugee-packed city in southern Gaza.

Days later, Israeli forces began an offensive in Rafah, saying Hamas militants were hiding there and reiterating that eliminating Hamas and bringing back hostages were Israel's main goals.

Washington has not described Israel's offensive as a major military operation and therefore has not followed through on its ultimatum.

Scrutiny on Israel's conduct of its military operation in Gaza has increased as the Palestinian death toll from the war has soared to above 37,000, according to health officials in the Hamas-run enclave and reduced the Strip to a wasteland.

The war started when Palestinian Hamas militants burst over the border and attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

On Monday, the Washington Post reported that two key Democrats in the U.S. Congress have agreed to support a major arms sale to Israel that includes 50 F-15 fighter jets worth more than $18 billion.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer and Humeyra PamukEditing by Tomasz Janowski)