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Ex-ambassador calls for rethink on US military aid amid Iron Dome controversy

After funding for Israel’s missile defense cut from US spending bill, Michael Oren says politicization of issue could become a ‘strategic vulnerability’ for Jerusalem

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Kulanu MK Michael Oren, on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Kulanu MK Michael Oren, on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It’s time for Israel to reconsider the military aid that it receives from the United States, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador in Washington during the Barack Obama administration, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, after progressive members of the US Congress succeeded in removing Iron Dome funding from a government spending bill.

“I think it’s very important that we begin a process of rethinking and restructuring our aid from the United States, the way the US aids us militarily,” he said.

“It does call for soul-searching and serious long-term strategic thinking.”

Oren, a noted academic and author, said that military aid to Israel being used increasingly as a tool against Jerusalem by left-wing Democrats could be seen as a “strategic vulnerability” for Israel, which could have dangerous consequences for the Jewish state.

Israel’s leaders must consider whether being seen as vulnerable to pressure from American legislators lines up with its attempt to project an image of a powerful, self-sufficient state that can defend itself.

“There are also costs to US aid,” he said.

Iron Dome in action, on May 13, 2021. (Avichai Socher/IDF)

Oren called for “more cooperative” avenues for US aid to Israel: “For example, the US and Israel could create a joint cyber defense initiative. The United States would actually be shoring up its own security.”

At the same time, he wasn’t optimistic that there would be a major change in Israel’s approach to US aid, citing the Israel Defense Forces’ concerns with securing funding, and figuring aid into its budgeting plans.

“When progressives call for cutting aid, military leaders are thinking about how many bullets we can buy, how many jets we can buy, not the strategic message of Israeli vulnerability,” he said.

It is up to Israel’s non-military leaders to lead the conceptual change, stressed Oren.

The current Memorandum of Understanding on military aid between the US and Israel, signed with the Obama Administration in 2016, ends in 2028.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, with House impeachment managers, speaks to the press after the Senate voted to acquit former US President Donald Trump, in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 13, 2021. (Alex Edelman/AFP)

Oren also raised the possibility that holding up Iron Dome funding could violate understandings between Israel and the US.

“The US conditioned its aid on Iron Dome [on the condition] that we share the intellectual property of the system,” he explained. “We shared it with the US, and now there is a possibility that we won’t get that support, so there’s a potential violation of our deal with the US.”

Progressive Democrats on Tuesday successfully pressured the party to remove $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system from a bill to keep the US government funded.

Oren called the move “a shot across the prow, and a very well-aimed one. ”

“During the Obama period, progressives were much smaller, and less powerful, and also they were afraid to take on Obama,” Oren noted. “Progressives are much more powerful, and they’re not afraid to take on Biden.”

The funds are widely expected to be approved, but at a later date.

The clause approving the $1 billion to restock Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors — crucial to protecting Israeli towns from rocket attacks and which became somewhat depleted during May’s Gaza war — had caused a hangup in the US House of Representatives, as party leaders sought to push forward a bill to raise the debt ceiling.

In this July 15, 2019 file photo, (from left) Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-MA, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-MN, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-MI, respond during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Oren also noted that Germany and South Korea receive far greater aid packages than Israel, but that money is couched as part of the US defense budget, not as Foreign Military Financing.

“It has to do with the way the aid is budgeted,” he said.

Since 2011, the US Congress has provided Israel more than $1.5 billion to produce Iron Dome batteries, developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. In August 2011, Raytheon and Rafael — which partnered on David’s Sling, a US-Israeli cooperative missile defense development program — announced an agreement to allow Raytheon to market Iron Dome in the US.

In 2014, the US and Israeli governments signed a co-production agreement to enable some portions of the Iron Dome system to be produced in the US.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to pass the budgetary bill by September 30 to keep the government funded through the start of December. She needed all hands on deck to pass it, and could not afford to lose progressive votes because no Republican is willing to support it. Pelosi may have originally calculated that adding the Iron Dome funding would be a way to entice Republicans, but this did not bring any onboard.

A congress member told The Times of Israel that Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Betty McCollum pushed Pelosi to have the Iron Dome funding removed from the spending bill and managed to succeed through mediation by Congresswoman Rosa Delauro.

Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Pramila Jayapal also threatened to vote against the bill if the Iron Dome funding was included, a Congressional aide said.

New York Representative Jamaal Bowman told Bloomberg that the problem was that the Iron Dome provision had been added in at the last minute, and that there had been no proper discussion.

“It’s not about Israel, it’s about, once again, leadership, throwing something on our table last minute and expecting us to decide in five minutes what to do with it, that’s the bigger problem,” Bowman said.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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