newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel supplemental aid critical for long-term defense, possible second front, experts say

“Israel has nowhere near the capacity they need to deal with a major war with Hezbollah,” said Brad Bowman. “We have to sound the alarm so that the people that can actually do something about it can fix it.”

Iron Dome aerial interceptions of Hamas rockets in southern Israel. Credit: Oren Ravid/Shutterstock.
Iron Dome aerial interceptions of Hamas rockets in southern Israel. Credit: Oren Ravid/Shutterstock.

The future of U.S. President Joe Biden’s request for $14.3 billion in supplemental aid for Israel became dimmer on Thursday, as the House of Representatives adjourned until the new year.

Next week, the Senate will reconvene and seek a compromise on the supplemental funding, which is part of a $106 billion foreign-aid package that also includes money for Ukraine, Taiwan and humanitarian assistance in Gaza.

Experts told JNS that while the Biden administration can provide emergency supply shipments to Israel for now, the $14.3 billion, which includes a major investment in Israel’s air-defense systems, is essential for supporting Israel’s long-term defense needs.

“The biggest amount is the $4 billion for Iron Dome and David’s Sling. That’s purely defensive ballistic missile defense systems,” Matt Kenney, vice president for government affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, told JNS. “It also includes $1.2 billion for research, development, tests and evaluation of Iron Beam.”

Iron Beam is a laser-defense system that Israel first used operationally to shoot down a Hamas rocket in November. If it proves successful, the system would be substantially cheaper than Iron Dome, which uses costly rocket-propelled interceptors to shoot down missiles and mortars.

Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that Israel’s air-defense network is woefully inadequate compared with the threats it faces, despite the Jewish state being a global leader in air and missile defense.

“Israel has nowhere near the capacity they need to deal with a major war with Hezbollah,” Bowman said. “Some people get upset if you say that publicly. But my response to that is: Israel’s enemies already know that. We have to sound the alarm so that the people that can actually do something about it can fix it.”

If the Biden supplemental request were approved, it would “dramatically” improve Israel’s missile-defense capacity, though it may take several years for that to come online, Bowman said.

Border dispute

Senate Republicans have made clear that they will not support the president’s supplemental aid package without substantive changes to U.S. border security policy.

“We need to be able to secure our own border, but we can also back Ukraine in their fight against Putin,” wrote Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead GOP negotiator on the aid bill, on Wednesday. “But we must make sure our own border is secure first.”

Actually passing an aid bill through both congressional chambers may require a careful balance between the demands of the more conservative Republicans in the House—who oppose the $61 billion in aid to Ukraine—and the growing number of left-wing, Senate Democrats, who want to condition U.S. aid to Israel.

Led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), 13 Senate Democrats have proposed an amendment to the supplemental package, which would require U.S. aid to comply with international law. That amendment implicitly threatens Israel that it will be cut off in the face of mounting Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza.

Jonathan Lord, senior fellow and director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, told JNS that the Van Hollen amendment, though largely toothless, sends a damaging message to U.S. partners and allies like Israel.

“There isn’t any operative language here that goes beyond what exists in standing law in the Arms Export Control Act or the Foreign Assistance Act, but the message here is unhelpful and self-defeating,” Lord said. 

“Between the lines, it suggests that perhaps they are not doing everything that they can to mitigate civilian harm, while at the same time sending the message to Russia and Hamas that everything that they are doing to put civilians in harm’s way, by and large, gets ignored,” he added.

Scarce resources

Biden tied U.S. aid to Ukraine with aid to Israel, in an attempt to garner wider bipartisan support, but there is some concern that Jerusalem and Kyiv are competing for limited U.S. resources.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has complained that U.S. deliveries of 155-mm artillery shells, a standardized caliber that Ukraine and Israel use widely, have declined substantially since Israel began its counterattack against Hamas after the Oct. 7 massacre.

All three of the experts with whom JNS spoke said that with the limited exception of those artillery shells, which have been revealed to be a major bottleneck in U.S. defense production, Israel and Ukraine are not competing for U.S. resources.

“For precision-guided munitions, there is little to no overlap there, for a variety of reasons, including the level of inventories that Israel already has and also the production capacity the U.S. has and whether those things have or have not been provided to Ukraine,” Bowman said. “There’s zero overlap, of course, on Iron Dome interceptors and Iron Dome batteries because those aren’t in Ukraine.”

Lord said that those who are skeptical that Washington can support both Israel and Ukraine are underestimating American strength.

“The country that built up a military and dropped in on Europe to save the world from fascism in 1944 can do big things,” he said. “We just need to demonstrate the political will and the aptitude to realize that those things over there do, can and will affect us at home, and we need to stand with our partners.”

While the supplemental bill has been in legislative limbo for weeks, Biden has used emergency authorities to bypass Congress and ship materiel to both Israel and Ukraine, including a $106.5 million sale of tank shells to Israel on Saturday.

Kenney, of JINSA, said that those ad hoc measures are not a replacement for congressional approval for the supplemental, which also allots $4.4 billion for Israel to reimburse the U.S. Defense Department for various near-term materiel transfers.

“Congress needs to actually appropriate the money,” Kenney said. “The president can ship some of those things in his current authority, but there’s an upper limit to each of those accounts. So once you hit that, then you can no longer use that account for that purpose.”

Throughout the Israel-Hamas conflict, Israel has also traded low-intensity blows with the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which has a vastly larger and more sophisticated rocket arsenal than Hamas.

So far, Israel and Hezbollah have declined to escalate those exchanges into full-scale war. The Biden administration has said in recent days that it wants Israel to shift tactics in Gaza to minimize civilian casualties, which has sent potentially worrying signals to Hezbollah about the effectiveness of Hamas’s tactics, making funding for missile defense along Israel’s northern front all the more urgent.

“With the current war in Gaza, you have to ask yourself what lessons is Hezbollah learning?” Bowman said. “I think it’s safe to say that one of the lessons that Hezbollah is learning is that if you don’t have a whole bunch of human shields, get them fast because that’s the quickest way to apply pressure on the United States to stop supporting Israel.”

“It’s an evil, unlawful, cynical approach that Israel’s enemies are using,” he added. “I fear that one of the major take-home messages for Hezbollah from this conflict in Gaza is that human shields work from their evil perspective, by surviving to fight another day using your own citizens, your own women and children, to defend yourself.”

Hezbollah might also see an advantage from that perspective in driving a wedge between the United States and Israel, trying to isolate Israel and deprive it of U.S. security assistance, he added.

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