Barak to be first foreign counterpart to meet Hagel

Tuesday talks at the Pentagon to focus on Iran, says US official

The Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defense (CC BY-SA mindfrieze, Flickr)
The Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defense (CC BY-SA mindfrieze, Flickr)

Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be the first foreign defense chief to meet with newly confirmed US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, when the two hold face-to-face talks in Washington DC next week.

A US official told Reuters that the talks between the US and Israeli counterparts would include discussions on Iran, but did not offer details. Israel and the US are publicly committed to thwarting what they believe is Iran’s drive to build nuclear weapons, but Barak and other Israeli leaders have urged a greater urgency in the struggle, with a greater stress on the possibility of military intervention, while the US is thus far sticking to diplomacy and sanctions in a bid to prompt Iran to halt the program.

“The secretary is honored that Minister Barak will be the first foreign counterpart that he will host at the Pentagon,” the official said, adding the two have known each other for more than a decade.

Barak will be in the US next week to take part in the annual policy conference in Washington, DC, of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Hagel just came out of a grueling confirmation process, where some of his critics charged he was insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state and too soft on Iran.

Opponents were particularly incensed by Hagel’s past use of the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to pro-Israel groups, for which he later apologized.

Israel officially welcomed Hagel’s confirmation on Tuesday, with its ambassador to the US Michael Oren saying it looks forward to working closely with him in the future. Israel’s President Shimon Peres also spoke warmly of Hagel after the confirmation.

Barak is the outgoing defense minister, still in the post only because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to muster a majority coalition in the weeks since Israel’s January 22 elections. On Saturday night, Netanyahu will ask Peres for a further two weeks to try to build a new government. If he fails to do so by March 16, another politician will be tasked with the job, or Israel could face new elections, but most analysts believe Netanyahu will beat the deadline.

Barak did not run for reelection, does not sit in the new Knesset, and is certain to be replaced as defense minister when a new cabinet and coalition are formed.

Barak’s visit comes at a time when Israeli defense planners are bracing for a potentially dramatic cut in US assistance that may slash as much as $300 million in aid over the next seven months due to sequestration.

While exact figures pertaining to any sequestration-related cuts remain shrouded in the fog of behind-the-scenes negotiations and much political grandstanding, a full implementation of sequestration would mean significant reductions in US military assistance to Israel, including funding for joint missile defense programs and the Iron Dome short-range, anti-rocket system.

The majority of the cuts would come in Israel’s share of US foreign aid funding. The US State Department spends roughly $5.1 billion each year in “military assistance to support ongoing partnerships worldwide.” Of that figure, some $3.1 billion go to Israel. With sequestration expected to slash non-defense discretionary spending (a category that includes foreign aid) by an expected 8.2%, Israel is slated to lose over $254 million from its expected aid.

Some of Israel’s neighbors could be hit as well. Egypt receives $1.3 billion from the same military assistance budget, and Jordan some $300 million. That leaves Egypt with a potential cut of about $107 million, and Jordan with a loss of approximately $25 million.

The reduction in US aid, combined with expected cost increases, will amount to a painful squeeze on Israel’s defense budget, exacerbating an expected budget crunch for the IDF caused by government plans to cut Israel’s own defense-driven budget deficit of recent years.

While the slice in the military assistance budget is the largest of the expected cuts from sequestration, it may not be the most painful. Beyond the military assistance funds, the Obama administration has helped fund joint US-Israeli missile defense programs through the Department of Defense.

Three of these systems, developed under a DoD budget line titled “US-Israeli missile defense cooperative programs,” are the Arrow 2, Arrow 3 and David’s Sling, designed to intercept long- and medium-range missiles such as those found in the arsenals of Iran and Hezbollah. All three were jointly funded by the US and Israel, with different parts constructed in both countries. The Pentagon’s share of the funding is slated to be $268 million in fiscal year 2013 (which ends on September 30). With the cut to defense spending expected (though not guaranteed) to be around 7.9%, the US contribution to those programs could drop by over $21 million over the next seven months.

That cut is separate from the cut to funding for Iron Dome, an advanced missile defense system developed in Israel that is designed to intercept short-range rockets launched from Gaza and Lebanon. US funding for Iron Dome, also through the Department of Defense, comes to $211 million in fiscal year 2013, a figure that could be cut by $17 million by sequestration.

The projected cut to Iron Dome would be especially painful for Israel, as Israeli defense planners seek to more than double the number of deployed batteries to 13 (from the current five) in order to better protect Israeli civilian centers from future rocket attacks by groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

The question of military assistance and missile defense funding will be high on the agenda at the AIPAC Policy Conference, which is set to open Sunday.

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