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McConnell and GOP give Netanyahu backup as aid tension spikes

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As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel will “stand alone” if it has to, leading congressional Republicans are pressuring President Joe Biden to rule out withholding weapons to the allied country — regardless of any invasion into the Gaza city of Rafah.

“We should not be telling them how to protect themselves,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an interview. “We should not be conditioning the arrival of military equipment that they need because of some domestic view that Netanyahu is unpopular. Completely irrelevant to the war.”

The Senate GOP leader played a major role in delivering the combination of Ukraine and Israel aid last month, working alongside Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Now, as the president threatens to withhold certain weapons to the country, citing the ongoing invasion into Rafah, McConnell is forcefully pushing back, saying Biden can’t now put his thumb on the scale.

“It’s a democratic ally with an elected government — a unity government — and we shouldn’t be telling them how to conduct a war on their own borders,” he said. “If they are a democratic ally, we don’t get to pick the leaders. And this is a unity government … it’s not about the prime minister.”

McConnell’s remarks follow Speaker Mike Johnson indicating in a POLITICO interview Wednesday night that he felt betrayed by Biden’s decision. The House GOP leader said he spoke to Netanyahu to find out what was going on, and that the prime minister confirmed Biden had withheld the bombs.

“So yesterday, I talked with Prime Minister Netanyahu about it, and I wanted to get confirmation from him exactly what’s happening. And he described exactly what was happening before the news was confirmed,” Johnson said. “I went straight to the White House, and I said, ‘What gives? Somebody’s going to have to explain this to me, because it’s very different than what I was told.’”

Netanyahu and Johnson have an “open line of communication” and a “strong” relationship, according to a Republican with direct knowledge of their interactions. Netanyahu regularly updates the speaker on the war with Hamas, but they’ve spoken more since Biden threatened to withhold weapons, this person said. The prime minister also called Johnson in March after the speaker publicly criticized Schumer for calling for new elections in Israel.

Biden’s comments have found supporters within his own party. The president has faced unrelenting criticism from a significant faction of Democrats over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war. But his threat to pause certain weapon shipments received rare praise from progressives and other leading Democrats.

“I’ve always said that Israel must defeat Hamas. The question is whether invading Rafah ultimately helps or hurts that cause,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “After meeting with the Israeli Ambassador today for an hour, I’m even more skeptical of their plan. I support President Biden’s decision.”

The Israeli leader has a history of working around Democratic presidents, accepting an invite from Republican congressional leaders in 2015 after he was denied a meeting with then-President Barack Obama amid negotiations with Iran. Speaking at a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu used his spotlight to bash U.S. foreign policy.

Johnson had reportedly considered inviting Netanyahu to deliver another joint session speech in March, though it never materialized. Schumer and Johnson are expected to invite Netanyahu to address the Congress at some point soon, though.

McConnell dismissed any idea that Netanyahu was going around Biden to lobby Republican leaders this time, saying he communicates with the Israeli government “routinely, but that isn’t really the point.”

Netanyahu frequently speaks with congressional Republicans, as aid to his country had stalled in the House and Democrats’ criticisms of the Israeli leader grew more pointed. Netanyahu joined Senate Republicans via live video conference in March, bashing Schumer for calling for new elections in Israel. He also welcomed a GOP congressional delegation in April.

Schumer had declined Netanyahu’s offer to address Senate Democrats as well, criticizing party-specific presentations as a way to further politicize Israel and Ukraine aid. On Wednesday, Schumer responded to the hold-up on some weapons: “Israel and America have an ironclad relationship and I have faith in what the Biden administration is doing.”

It’s not just McConnell and Johnson blasting Biden’s threats to withhold weapons. Senate Republicans from across the ideological spectrum, from conservative Ted Cruz (Texas) to moderate Susan Collins (Maine), held a press conference Thursday, pushing a resolution condemning any efforts to hold delivery of weapons to Israel.

The GOP bloc was led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who indicated bluntly that “I trust Israel more than I trust [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin.”

Not everyone in Biden’s party is happy, either. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), an outspoken supporter of Israel, agreed with the criticism of the president: “Hard disagree and deeply disappointing” he said of Biden’s comments.

“The President’s actions signal weakness to Hamas, to our allies and adversaries abroad, and at home,” wrote centrist Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) in a post of X. “Congress appropriated funds for arms and ammunition for Israel, and they should be promptly delivered.”

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.