US House okays funding boost for Israel’s missile defense
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US House okays funding boost for Israel’s missile defense

Under the shadow of a presidential veto, over $600 million allocated for programs; pro-Israel groups criticize White House for opposing spending increase

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama (right), IDF ex-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz (left), ex-defense minister Moshe Ya'alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery, March 2013 (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama (right), IDF ex-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz (left), ex-defense minister Moshe Ya'alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery, March 2013 (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Under the shadow of a presidential veto threat, the House of Representatives passed a defense appropriations measure Thursday that included $635.7 million for Israel’s missile defense programs.

While the White House has offered conflicting explanations for its opposition to increased missile defense support for the Jewish state, pro-Israel groups on Thursday continued to criticize the administration’s reticence to accept the extra funding appropriated for Israel by the Republican-controlled House.

The massive $576 billion defense appropriations bill for the upcoming fiscal year included $268.7 million in research and development funding for US-Israel cooperative missile and rocket defense programs; $25 million in research and development funding for US-Israel directed energy activities, such as laser technologies, to combat missiles and rockets; $72 million for procurement of the Iron Dome rocket defense system; $150 million for procurement of the David’s Sling missile defense system; and $120 million for procurement of the Arrow-3 missile defense system.

The amount allocated to Israeli missile defense programs exceeded the sum requested by the Obama administration by over $400 million.

US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose with military personnel next to an Iron Dome battery at Ben Gurion Airport on March 20, 2013 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon /GPO/ Flash90)
US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pose with military personnel next to an Iron Dome battery at Ben Gurion Airport on March 20, 2013. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/ Flash90)

The House also included $42.7 million for US-Israel anti-tunnel cooperation to continue developing technologies to locate, map and destroy terrorist tunnel networks from the Gaza Strip.

The must-pass legislation cleared the lower chamber by a vote of 282-138.

But despite the wide margin, the defense funding legislation faces a rocky future. On Tuesday, the White House issued a lengthy missive detailing over a dozen points of opposition to the appropriations measure.

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, June 13, 2016 (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 13, 2016. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The administration criticized the bill for budgetary sleight of hand, complaining that it redirects funds from the overseas operations war chest toward other purposes in an effort to meet spending targets. In the letter, the administration complained that the legislation “fails to provide our troops with the resources needed to keep our nation safe.

“At a time when ISIL continues to threaten the homeland and our allies, the bill does not fully fund wartime operations,” the letter continued. “Instead the bill would redirect $16 billion of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds toward base budget programs that the Department of Defense (DOD) did not request, shortchanging funding for ongoing wartime operations midway through the year. Not only is this approach dangerous but it is also wasteful. The bill would buy excess force structure without the money to sustain it, effectively creating a hollow force structure that would undermine DOD’s efforts to restore readiness.”

The objection to increased aid to Israel came as the administration criticized “the reduction of $324 million from the FY 2017 Budget request for US ballistic missile defense programs.”

“These programs are required to improve the reliability of missile defense system and ensure the United States stays ahead of the future ballistic missile threat,” administration officials wrote in the missive sent to Congress.

Without explicitly drawing parallels, the next sentence of the letter noted that “furthermore, the Administration opposes the addition of $455 million above the FY 2017 Budget request for Israeli missile defense procurement and cooperative development programs.” The administration had initially requested $103.8 million for Israeli cooperative programs.

On Wednesday, State Department Spokesman John Kirby explained that the administration opposed the funding increase because it “would consume a growing share of a shrinking US Missile Defense Agency’s budget.”

An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (AP/Dan Balilty)
An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 9, 2014. (AP/Dan Balilty)

But unnamed administration officials told numerous outlets that the increase in missile funding should be tied to the long-term Memorandum of Understanding currently under negotiation rather than being provided ad hoc through individual appropriations bills.

Pro-Israel organizations Thursday continued to protest the administration’s opposition to the spending increase.

On Thursday, leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called the Obama administration rejection “very troubling” and “a disturbing departure from the prior practice of this and previous administrations.”

In a statement, Conference of Presidents Chairman Stephen M. Greenberg and CEO Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman, asserted that “in a time of escalating threats to Israel from the arsenal of more 150,000 missiles and rockets supplied by Iran and stockpiled by Hezbollah, including sophisticated precision guided weapons capable of targeting hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians in major population areas in Israel, the belligerent threats to Israel posed by Iran’s ongoing development and testing of its long range missiles in blatant violation of internationally imposed restrictions and the ever present peril of renewed rocket and missile attacks on Israel from Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza, the decision by the Obama Administration to oppose the overwhelming bipartisan Congressional support for increasing Israel’s ability to defend its people is very troubling.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“President Obama and senior US military leaders have repeatedly acknowledged that assuring Israel has the necessary military resources to counteract missile and rocket assaults at a time of increasing instability in the Middle East promotes US national security interests in the region,” the statement continued. “Israel’s missile defense systems have also provided a valuable contribution to America’s own missile defense program and security.

“The public and formal objection to Congress increasing the budget for Israel’s missile defense is a disturbing departure from the prior practice of this and previous administrations. This could risk emboldening the forces of terror and instability and heighten concerns among friends and allies of the US in the region,” they concluded, urging the administration “to promptly reconsider its stand.”

The Christians United for Israel Action Fund also emphasized Thursday that it “is deeply disappointed by President Obama’s opposition to the Congressional plan to increase support for Israel’s missile defense programs.

“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,” wrote the organization in a statement. “The least we can do to protect our ally from these threats — and to improve our own defense infrastructure in the process — is to provide this modest increase in missile defense funding.”

Christians United for Israel will convene their annual summit in Washington next month, and thousands of pro-Israel Christians are expected to converge on Capitol Hill to encourage representatives to support Israeli defense funding, among other legislation.

Meanwhile, AIPAC congratulated legislators on the Thursday vote, writing in a statement that it “commends the US House of Representatives for significantly bolstering its support of US-Israel missile defense cooperation in the fiscal 2017 defense appropriations bill.”

The pro-Israel lobby group said that the funds will “help Israel defend its citizens against rocket and missile threats, and contribute to America’s missile defense programs.”

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