NEW YORK – Despite a fiscal crunch forcing significant belt-tightening in Washington, American military aid to Israel, Jordan and Egypt will not be cut in the White House’s budget request, according to figures released late last week.
The amounts in question – $3.1 billion for Israel, $300 million for Jordan and $1.3 billion for Egypt – are a minuscule portion of the $3.77 trillion budget requested by the administration, but they constitute a significant portion of the recipient countries’ defense spending: 20 percent in Israel’s case, 33% for Egypt and 23% for Jordan.
For the first time, funding for the joint US-Israel missile defense system Iron Dome appears in the presidential budget request, which still must be approved by Congress. A senior source in a pro-Israel organization in Washington familiar with the issue called the earmark “significant.”
The budget cites the dangers and uncertainty created in the wake of the Arab Spring as the key reason for not slashing aid to the region.
“The Arab Spring has given way to free elections in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, but also unleashed some uncertain forces,” the State Department portion of the budget reads. “As Syrians struggle for the right of self-determination against an authoritarian and violent regime, and as Egypt works to address severe economic challenges, the United States has an essential role to play. We must support these transitions, forging relationships with newly elected governments and building partnerships with the citizens who will shape their countries’ futures.”
That’s why the proposed budget “maintains our longstanding commitments to key regional allies, including Israel, Jordan, and Egypt,” the budget says.
The preservation of current levels of military assistance in the administration’s proposed budget is “very good news” for Israel, the pro-Israel group official said.
Observers of the budget process caution that the White House budget must be approved by a Republican-controlled House before it becomes law. Because of deep disagreements over key budgetary questions, including health care spending, the deficit, and others, Congress and the White House have been unable to agree on a new budgetary framework for several years.
But this time, if the new framework doesn’t become law, most of the federal budget – including the military assistance budget line – will be cut back as part of the mandatory “sequestration,” or across the board cuts, signed into law in 2011.
According to law, sequestration will cut into current spending for nine years.
“We don’t yet know what the percent of the cut would be,” the pro-Israel official said, but it is unlikely that it could be averted.
Pro-Israel groups in Washington, including AIPAC and others, have studiously avoided calling for exempting Israel aid from sequestration cuts, and members of Congress have already indicated that almost no program will be able to avoid the cuts.
Instead, pro-Israel groups have added their voices to the chorus of interest groups, from business leaders to charities, urging Congress and the White House to agree on a new budget framework that would replace sequestration before the fiscal year ends in September.
“Can an alternative be found to sequestration in the budget discussions over the next several months? That is the primary question,” the official asked.
Besides the military aid, the new budget also allocates some $580 million for a Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, an initiative of the State Department that seeks to capitalize on some of the democratizing trends of the Arab Spring, according to officials.
The fund is “designed to provide support for political reform, free and fair elections, democratic institutions, transparent and accountable government, transitional justice, open markets, and inclusive growth,” according to the budget request.