WASHINGTON (JTA) — The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it was “deeply disappointed” in the Obama administration’s opposition to increased missile defense funding for Israel, weighing in on an issue that is apparently obstructing U.S.-Israel talks on renewing defense assistance.
“We are deeply disappointed that a June 14 ‘Statement of Administration Policy’ on the defense appropriations measure has criticized Congress for funding U.S.-Israel missile defense cooperation,” the lobby said Tuesday of the White House in a statement.
Missile defense is at the center of disagreements between Israel and the United States in talks aimed at extending the overall defense assistance package. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared newly amenable on Wednesday to Obama administration demands that missile defense cooperation be wrapped into the package.
The Obama administration included in its criticism of the increase in funding for missile defense cooperation a statement of policy opposing the U.S. House of Representatives version of a defense spending bill. Among a litany of objections in its six pages, the administration statement opposes adding $455 million to the $145 million the administration has already budgeted toward missile defense.
The administration statement does not explain its opposition, but notably the statement saying “the Administration opposes the addition of $455 million above the FY 2017 Budget request for Israeli missile defense procurement and cooperative development programs” immediately follows a slam on the House for cutting $324 million from separate U.S. ballistic missile defense programs. That suggests the administration may hope to leverage missile defense cooperation with Israel in order to restore funding for the U.S. programs.
Administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have traditionally lowballed funding for missile defense cooperation with Israel, which is considered separately from the defense assistance budget, currently about $3 billion a year. Congress then adds funds to the programs, which allows lawmakers to accrue chits with the pro-Israel community. An administration explicitly opposing the increase in its statement of policy, however, seems unprecedented.
“On a bipartisan basis, Congress has increased funding above administration requests this year, as it has done for well over a decade,” AIPAC said Tuesday. “These cooperative programs — including the Arrow, David’s Sling, and Iron Dome — are critical for Israel’s defense against a growing array of missile threats and make an important contribution to U.S. missile defense programs. We applaud Congress for consistently supporting these key programs, and urge their full funding in both the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization and Appropriations Acts.”
The Obama administration statement threatened a veto if the House version of the bill came to the president’s desk unaltered. It did not say the president would veto the bill if some components were removed and others remained.
Another factor in the contretemps could be the talks underway now with Israel to extend the Memorandum of Understanding guaranteeing Israel defense assistance. The Americans and the Israelis want to increase the annual level of assistance from $3 billion to nearly $5 billion, but the administration wants to wrap into that the missile defense cooperation funding, while Israel wants to keep it separate.
For the Israelis, keeping the missile defense cooperation out of the overall defense package allows them to negotiate each year for different levels of funding, which they say should be considered on an as-needed basis, subject to instability and threats in the region. The Obama administration, like others before it, prefers to keep Congress as far away from its defense spending considerations as possible.
In a statement Wednesday refuting Israeli media claims that the Obama administration is considering a cut in assistance, Netanyahu appeared amenable to including missile defense cooperation as part of the overall package, as long as there is an overall increase in its funding.
“In the wake of numerous misleading reports, the Prime Minister’s bureau would like to clarify there has been no cut in American assistance,” he said. “There is an internal debate between Congress and the White House on the size of the annual supplement to the missile defense program. Prime Minister Netanyahu is working to anchor this supplement as part of the discussions on the assistance agreement for the next ten years. Not only will security assistance for missile defense not be cut, it will be increased.”
Netanyahu has come under pressure in Israel recently to conclude a deal before Obama leaves office. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said she is committed to the defense package for Israel, but Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has suggested that Israel should pay for its assistance from the United States.