US aid to Israel could be slashed, Kerry says

White House budget request had maintained $3.1 billion for Jerusalem, but sequestration could see the figure shrink, secretary of state says

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Edward Royce with Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Edward Royce with Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

A $3.1 billion earmark for military aid to Israel in the White House’s budget request for next year could be reduced, if mandatory across the board budget cuts come into play, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday.

Kerry testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that President Barack Obama’s budget request did not include cuts if sequestration, meant to rein in the nation’s deficit, went into effect.

“Israel got a plus-up in the budget, I think to $3.1 billion total. But that is subject to sequester, as is everything, and we’re not able to undo that,” Kerry said, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

The $3.1 billion in aid to Israel maintained current levels of funding, and had been a centerpiece of quiet lobbying by pro-Israel groups in Washington, which feared deep cuts to one of the Israel Defense Force’s main funding sources if the State Department was forced to slash spending.

According to Foreign Policy, Obama’s budget request was submitted with figures assuming Congress passed the White House’s deficit reduction plan. Should a plan fail to pass, sequestration will go into effect again next year, forcing cuts to every department.

“Sequester, folks, was not supposed to happen. That was the theory. And we’re living with it, and so we have cuts that we don’t want. And that’s the absence of making the policy choice itself. So, yes, there will be cuts under sequester,” Kerry said.

Kerry did not specify how the sequester would affect Israel’s budget, but officials had earlier said Israel could lose 5% of its funding, or $150 million.

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.

“We don’t yet know what the percent of the cut would be,” an official at a pro-Israel organization told the Times of Israel earlier this week, but it is unlikely that it could be averted.

It is also not clear how funding for the Iron Dome anti-missile battery program would be affected.

Last week, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency offered details of its first-ever budget request to help fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, expected in Israel early next week, had promised then-defense minister Ehud Barak in a meeting in early March that the US would continue funding joint US-Israeli missile defense programs.

Israel currently has five batteries deployed around the country, and has sought US help in expanding the Iron Dome force to over a dozen.

The Missile Defense Agency request calls for $220 million for fiscal year 2014 and a further $176 million in fiscal year 2015.

The request marks the first time that funding for Iron Dome, which has already reached over $480 million since the program’s inception, was included in the administration budget request to Congress.

The White House request also included over $1 billion in aid to Egypt and $300 million to Jordan.

The State Department had cited the dangers and uncertainty created in the wake of the Arab Spring as the key reason for not slashing aid to the region in the budget request.

“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 read.

Kerry also used the meeting to tout his achievements in the Middle East and said he would continue his push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“I can guarantee you that I am committed to this because I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” Kerry told lawmakers. “I think we have some period of time — a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it’s over.”

Haviv Rettig-Gur and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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