(June 21, 2016 / JNS) Since taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been fraught with tension. Even within the framework of that tension, strong American military aid for Israel has been a constant during the Obama years. But during the last few weeks, that support has been called into question by the White House’s expression of opposition to additional funding for Israel’s highly touted missile defense systems.
In a statement published June 14 by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the Obama administration said it opposed Congress’s proposed “addition of $455 million above the FY 2017 Budget request for Israeli missile defense procurement and cooperative development programs.”
Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended an appropriation of more than $600 million for Israeli missile defense in the 2017 fiscal year—$113 million more than the previous fiscal year and $455 million above the Obama administration’s request.
The influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby said in a statement that it was “deeply disappointed” in the Obama administration’s opposition to the proposed funding increase.
“On a bipartisan basis, Congress has increased funding above administration requests this year, as it has done for well over a decade,” AIPAC said. “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.”
Similarly, the Christians United for Israel Action Fund said, “As the threats to Israel mount, and as President Obama’s Iran deal enriches and emboldens Israel’s most determined enemies, Israel’s need for missile defense has increased exponentially.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby explained that the increased funding for the cooperative missile defense programs with Israel “would consume a growing share of a shrinking U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s budget.”
Days after the White House’s comments, the House of Representatives rebuffed the Obama administration and passed a defense appropriations measure that included $635.7 million for Israel’s missile defense programs.
The controversy surrounding the missile defense funding comes amid broader U.S.-Israel negotiations over a new 10-year military aid package, also known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The current aid package for Israel, worth about $30 million over a 10-year period, was signed by former president George W. Bush in 2007 and expires in 2018.
Both sides have been negotiating since last summer, with Israel seeking a substantial increase in aid from $3.1 billion annually to $4 billion or even $5 billion per year, according to reports, citing inflation and the complex threats that have emerged for the Jewish state since the last 10-year deal was signed. The White House, however, has argued for a lower increase in aid due to budgetary concerns.
While most of the negotiations have been held privately between both countries and their defense industries, the recent flare-up over missile defense funding—which is not included in the existing 10-year package, but has been separately added by Congress over the years—has led to publicized tension between the American and Israeli governments.
“It seems like this whole issue is being manipulated by both sides for political interests internally and externally,” Arik Puder, president of the New York City-based public relations firm Puder PR and a former senior media consultant for Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, told JNS.org. “A lot of it has to do with egos and tensions between the two leaders. It is no secret that the relationship between them isn’t the best.”
Some reports have indicated that Israel may delay the MOU until the next U.S. president takes office in 2017. Netanyahu’s closest advisors, Puder said, “may argue that we could get much more from a different president, and that Obama is in a way blackmailing Bibi (Netanyahu) by putting a gun to his head to force him to approve the package. And maybe [the advisors are arguing that Israel] should wait for the next president and a better deal, where there isn’t this bad chemistry.”
But Mideast expert Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, believes that Israel would like to have the deal settled as soon as possible.
“From everything that I hear right now, most Israelis would like to get the MOU done right now,” Schanzer told JNS.org. “There is no way in knowing if things will get better [in U.S.-Israel relations]. The Israelis want to make sure that their gratitude is being expressed.”
According to Schanzer, there are “three competing and connecting issues” complicating the U.S.-Israel relationship at the moment.
“One is the overall tension between the U.S. and Israel on a range of political issues stemming from the Iran nuclear deal, settlements, and other things as well,” he said. “Then you have MOU, which is being debated now and has been the subject of a lot of speculation and controversy, including stipulations for how much money will be spent in the U.S. on American armaments versus in Israel on the Israeli defense industry.”
Under the existing MOU, Israel can spend roughly a quarter of American aid on its own defense industry. With the increase in aid now being negotiated, Israel is still looking to get a significant portion of the funds directed to its defense industry.
Another sticking point between the U.S. and Israel centers on Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). According to U.S. law, the Department of Defense must ensure that Israel can “counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors,” or in other words, have military superiority over its Arab neighbors—some of which are U.S. allies.
“The military edge is just not what Israel gets or receives from the U.S, but it is a broader challenge of ensuring that Israel’s military is designed to win in any number of wartime scenarios with Middle East foes,” Schanzer said. “You are not only looking at what Israel gets in terms of hardware, but also a question of what Israel’s enemies are getting.”
Schanzer noted that the QME factor sometimes makes it difficult for the U.S. to sell weapons to its other Mideast, such as Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia is purchasing weapons systems hands over fists, primarily as a result of the Iran nuclear deal, but that changes Israel’s QME every time that happens because Saudi Arabia, despite popular belief in Washington right now, is not an ally of Israel. It is a traditional enemy,” he said.
As such, reports suggest that Obama has questioned Israel’s QME, which dates back to the 1967 Six-Day War and was codified into law by Congress in 2008. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic quoted Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s secretary of defense from 2011-13, as saying that the president “has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge.”
“When you look at the president’s comments to Goldberg, he talks about how he’s not at ease with QME,” Schanzer told JNS.org.
Additionally, said Schanzer, “you’ve heard from Obama administration officials that they are not likely to give Israel everything they have asked for and that they will have to live with less.”
“With that said, I do not think there will be a reduction from the last MOU, but it could be less than what was requested,” he said.
Amid the debate over the MOU, recently appointed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman this week made his first visit to the U.S. in his current role. Lieberman met with his U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, with the two leaders discussing “global terror, developments in various arenas in the Middle East, and a series of issues related to relations between the two countries,” according to Lieberman’s spokesperson.
During Lieberman’s visit, a senior Israeli official cited in multiple reports denied claims that Israel is slowing down the MOU talks with the hope of delaying the agreement until a new U.S. president takes office.
“There is a good bit of back and forth here,” Schanzer said. “I don’t think Israel is going to lose significantly in this. I think it is just a question of whether it gets what it needs given all the other challenges that are out there.”
“We are at least seeing the [Obama] administration right now voicing its concerns and pushing back on certain aspects of the deal,” he added. “This is has been very common for this administration, which has been critical of Israel and qualified in its support. I think the messages we have seen over the last several weeks and months on the MOU and QME reflect that very accurately.”
Puder, the PR executive, pointed out that Obama has always said regarding his administration’s Israel policy, “Don’t judge me by what you think or what you suspect, but judge me by my actions.”
“The first thing that always comes up is his support for Israel’s defense and security,” said Puder. “He always brags how he has supported Israel through this like no other American president.”
With Obama’s presidency winding down, Puder believes the commander-in-chief would like to get the MOU deal finalized in order to solidify his legacy of support for Israel’s security.
“He really would like to get this deal done,” Puder said. “When it comes to his legacy, he doesn’t want to be remembered as a president who wasn’t that friendly to one of America’s best friends….Maybe that’s another reason why Bibi is playing tough, because he knows how much Obama would like to get this deal done for his legacy.”