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The implications after President Biden put a hold on a shipment of bombs for Israel

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden did something this week that he hasn't done before - certainly not since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. He paused a shipment of U.S. bombs that had been bound for Israel - this out of concern that they would be used on Rafah, the southern city in Gaza that is sheltering more than a million Palestinians displaced by war. What does this mean for the White House and for the fighting on the ground? NPR's Mara Liasson is here to talk about the politics. And Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. He's here to talk about the military developments. Good to have you both in the studio.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Mara, why did the president make this decision now?

LIASSON: You know, Biden has repeatedly made the case to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that moving into Rafah, starting a ground invasion, was a bad idea. And Netanyahu hasn't changed his mind about doing that. But this week, there were tanks that moved into parts of that city. There's still a debate about whether the invasion has actually begun.

But what Biden realized is that his theory of the case, which was to embrace Israel in public in the hopes that would give him some ability to influence them in private - that hasn't worked. And so now he has done something he's never done before, which is make military aid conditional.

It's pretty shocking that the U.S., the most important ally to Israel and its biggest arms supplier, seems like it has no leverage or clout with the Israeli government. But now Biden has decided to escalate the pressure, and whether it convinces Israel to pay more attention to him remains to be seen.

SHAPIRO: Tom, what was in this shipment, and is it likely to have any impact on Israel to not have them right away?

BOWMAN: Well, we're talking a lot of bombs. And remember, Ari, this is one shipment. It includes some 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs. There's no final decision on whether this shipment will be sent later.

Now, the U.S. is especially concerned about Israel's use of these 2,000-pound bombs in dense urban areas like Rafah. Israel has used these larger bombs repeatedly since October 1 (ph), when it hit the Jabalia refugee camp. Israel said it killed the Hamas leader responsible for that October 7 Hamas attack, but it also left 50 Palestinians dead, another 150 wounded.

So what will it mean? Well, the 2,000-pound bombs are key to destroying tunnels where Israel says Hamas is hiding. But Israel likely has some in reserve, so it probably won't mean all that much because Israel, again, says it will head into Rafah to destroy the remaining Hamas fighters. Basically, Ari, this is more a symbolic gesture on the part of the U.S.

SHAPIRO: Congress just passed a big new package of spending on national security that includes funding for Israel. Does this move by Biden affect that at all?

BOWMAN: This does not affect the supplemental bill passed last month. Officials say the shipment paused is from previously appropriated funds - some from years ago. And officials say the U.S. just approved the latest tranche of foreign military assistance - $827 million worth of weapons equipment for Israel. No details on when those will arrive.

SHAPIRO: Mara, President Biden keeps saying that he believes Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas. Does this decision to pause the shipment indicate that his support is wavering?

LIASSON: Republicans may say that, but I think Biden is still sticking to his position that Israel has a right to defend itself. He said all along that civilians should be protected. So he's not wavering on his support for Israel. He's just willing to assert himself more, attach conditions to U.S. military aid.

SHAPIRO: The war in Gaza has become such an intense political issue for him. Does this ease the pressure at all?

LIASSON: Well, the reason it's become such an intense political issue is that it splits the Democratic Party. You've got young people and minority voters angry about Gaza, angry at Biden for supporting Israel so staunchly. And it could indicate to them that Biden is taking a slightly tougher line, but I think the only thing that would really ease the pressure on Biden is for the war to end.

You know, Democrats are worried. The president is about to give some commencement addresses. Will there be big protests there, including at Morehouse College? There's also the DNC meeting in August in Chicago, where big pro-Palestinian demonstrations could also disrupt that convention. Remember, in 1968 they were in Chicago, and big antiwar protests helped Nixon get elected.

SHAPIRO: I don't remember it, but I've read about it.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Tom, what are you looking for now?

BOWMAN: Well, whether there's a cease-fire or whether this Rafah military operation happens, the big concern for the U.S. and others is a potential humanitarian catastrophe. That main border crossing at Rafah has closed, so will enough aid get in? And how does Israel handle the hundreds of thousands of civilians? Israel has not provided the U.S. with answers, and that's caused some frustration, I know, at the Pentagon and the White House. And a top official with the aid group, CARE, Deepmala Mahla, told me she's never seen anything so dire in her 25 years of experience.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Tom Bowman and Mara Liasson. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

LIASSON: 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.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.