WASHINGTON – Israeli representatives, including a smiling Ambassador Ron Dermer, members of Congress, Jewish leaders, and top-level Obama administration officials, gathered at the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters Wednesday afternoon to officially sign the new 10-year, $38 billion dollar memorandum of understanding, outlining the terms and amount of US defense aid to Israel over the next decade.
The agreement between the two nations, proponents and skeptics agree, will have a central impact on US-Israel relations over the coming decade. But while, for some, the agreement means a higher degree of certainty for Israel’s military planners, for others, it ossifies an aid structure already insufficiently flexible to meet fast-arising challenges in the region. And one key clause could potentially shift Israel’s advocacy in Washington.
For many in the room, the agreement was an opportunity to highlight America’s – and the Obama administration’s – commitment to Israel’s defense. A long line of Democratic legislators were quick to praise the accord, as was pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse AIPAC, which released a statement welcoming the package.
“I think most people, including the Israeli government, including AIPAC — which has not been shy about offering up their criticism of the Obama administration — welcomed the completion of this agreement,” noted White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest Wednesday.
Proponents like Senator Cory Booker, who had pushed for months for the completion of such an agreement, noted its unprecedented scale and emphasized its long-term nature. “The Memorandum of Understanding announced today is the single largest pledge of military assistance in U.S. history and an expression of our continued commitment to Israel’s security and a response to the threats its citizens face every day,” Booker said in a Wednesday statement. “This memorandum of understanding is the result of bipartisan efforts in Congress and beyond to ensure the strong, bilateral security partnership between the US and Israel continues long into the future.”
The agreement adds some $8 billion over a decade to the amount that Israel receives under the current memorandum of understanding, changing the total sum from $30 to $38 billion. Still, $5 billion of that sum comes from funding for missile defense programs, an expense that had been previously funded outside of the existing memorandum.
“For years, the United States funding for Israeli missile defense has been subject to the uncertainty of the annual appropriations process,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice highlighted during the signing ceremony. “Some years the amount of missile defense funding has been unclear for months at a time. Some years it’s even declined. With this funding, General (Yaakov) Nagel (the acting Israeli national security adviser who signed the accord) and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defense will be able to count on a steady multiyear commitment – put it down in writing, count on it – and greater certainty for Israel will breed greater security for Israel.”
Rice said that the funding will also allow Israel to “update the lion’s share of its fighter aircraft fleet” through the acquisition of additional F-35s and F-15s, as well as to “substantially enhance the mobility of its ground forces.”
Critics, however, see grave limitations to the new agreement, particularly focusing on two conditions that have been added for the first time: Israel is not allowed to press Congress for new or additional funding for the duration of the agreement, except in times of war; and the US will gradually scale down to zero the amount of funding that Israel can spend on its own homegrown defense industry rather than in the US.
“I’m not pleased with a provision in the MOU which prohibits Israel from using American defense assistance on Israeli defense suppliers,” complained Senator Lindsey Graham in a statement that also argued that the spending increase was insufficient for Israel’s needs. “Israel’s homegrown defense technology is some of the best in the world.”
“Under our old agreement Israel was allowed to develop cutting-edge military technology and was required to share this technology with the United States. I’m proud to say that many of these advancements helped protect the lives of American service members in uniform,” Graham continued. “I do not believe this new provision will serve the interests of the United States or Israel. I do fear it will be Americans wearing the uniform of our nation who will pay the price for this short-sighted change in policy.”
It is the no-lobbying-Congress provision, however, that may have some of the farthest-reaching significance.
Groups like AIPAC can continue to lobby on matters they believe to be in Israel’s interests but that seem to be outside of the provisions of the agreement, since such organizations are not official representatives of Israel’s government per se. In addition, Congress is not precluded from acting without being lobbied by Israel and, some argue, is not strictly speaking legally bound by the terms of the agreement which is a memorandum rather than a binding treaty.
Michael Makovsky, the CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, told Politico that he, like Graham, views the funding level as insufficient, but suggested that Congress was within its power to up the budget as it saw fit. “I think this should be seen as a floor for military aid to Israel, not a ceiling,” he said.
For some, however, the revelation that Israel had signed a letter promising to return any Congressional appropriations above the amount listed in the agreement for the next two years – 2017 and 2018 – was a game-changer in the power dynamics of Washington.
“AIPAC can retire,” quipped former peace negotiator and ex-ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk on Twitter, shortly after the Washington Post revealed that letter’s existence.
The ‘out’ clause
While the implications of stable funding for the future of the US-Israel relationship were a key marketing point for administration supporters, they were a warning signal for others, particularly combined with the new restrictions on increasing aid amounts.
“Ten years is far too long for this. It’s not the fault of the administration, it’s not the fault of the Israelis. It’s the institution that both sides have inherited, and in today’s Middle East it is not nearly short enough for the Israelis and their counterparts to plan properly,” said Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer. “When you think about the last memorandum of understanding, there was no such thing as ISIS, no such thing as the Iran deal, no such thing as the Syrian civil war or Arab Spring.”
Schanzer suggested that in the coming ten years, cyber warfare will develop “drastically” and the “threat from Iran will metastasize in ways few people can envision.”
The new agreement, he said, “is on its face less adaptable, but everything is subject to change. The ‘out’ clause for the Israelis is that in times of major conflict, the Israelis are going to have the ability to come back and ask for supplemental assistance.” The definition of conflict, however, remains flexible.
“There are ways out, but it is designed to be a much more static agreement, and this is what we’ve heard from Senator Graham but also from others who are more quietly grumbling about it on Capitol Hill: this memorandum of understanding on some level obviates the need for as much interaction between Israel and the Hill, and that has the potential to change the tone and tenor of the US-Israel relationship.”
“Congress has relished the role of being the purveyors of Israel’s supplemental assistance, of hearing and meeting Israel’s needs and being able to go back and tell pro-Israel constituents that this had been accomplished,” he explained. “And while I don’t think this is a downgrading of the US-Israel relationship in any way, it will change the way in which the Israelis and legislators interact.”
While Graham openly critiqued the provision as an infringement on Congress’s power of the purse – the ability to appropriate funds as it sees fit – many in Washington were reluctant to comment directly on how pro-Israel advocacy might change under the clause.
“The politics of ‘is Congress in, is Congress out,’ it’s hard to respond to that,” said ADL Executive Director Jonathan Greenblatt, whose organization has a close relationship with many members of Congress. “But the president and the administration are saying that Israel will have locked in, beyond any doubt, its level of military support from the US for the next decade.”
Doing so, Greenblatt argued, “lifts the conversation above these politics of who’s in and who’s out. By getting above the fray and getting a long-term investment, it allows us to have the space for all kinds of other conversations beyond the issue of military support — ways that the two countries can build off of existing collaboration and do even more, in science, health, education and other ways outside of military support. It creates all kinds of interesting possibilities, and that’s what we should be focused on.”
Greenblatt suggested that beyond the impact of the funds, the conclusion of the deal itself has important implications for Israel and the region.
The agreement, he said, sends a message to Iran that the US does not see it as a security partner any time soon – and sends a message to moderate states in the region that the US is not pulling out its interests in the area, nor will it abandon its traditional allies.
- Israel & the Region
- Jewish Times
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- memorandum of understanding
- Lindsey Graham
- Cory Booker
- Susan Rice
- Josh Earnest
- Foundation for Defense of Democracies
- Jonathan Schanzer
- Arab Spring
- Syrian civil war
- Iran nuclear deal
- Martin Indyk
- Yaakov Nagel
- AIPAC American Israel Public Affairs Committee