US Senate passes huge defense bill including $550 million for Israel

Overall $716.3 billion authorization, with funding for Israeli anti-missile and anti-tunnel defense systems, now heads to Trump for approval

Illustrative: The IDF launches a missile from the Iron Dome air defense system to intercept an incoming rocket from Gaza from a position in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 29, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Illustrative: The IDF launches a missile from the Iron Dome air defense system to intercept an incoming rocket from Gaza from a position in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 29, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

The US Senate easily passed a $716.3 billion defense authorization bill Wednesday that includes funding for Israel to defend itself against Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as ramping up military spending and bolstering America’s posture against Russia while avoiding policy changes that would have antagonized US President Donald Trump.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed 87 to 10 in the Senate a week after clearing the House of Representatives, and now heads to the White House for Trump’s signature.

The bill includes “the quantity and type of precision guided munitions that are necessary for Israel to combat Hezbollah in the event of a sustained armed confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah,” and “other armed groups and terrorist organizations such as Hamas.”

Israel has deployed air defense systems to protect civilians in the north of the country from missiles fired from Syria, as well as rockets and drones sent by Iranian-backed forces in the war-torn country, including the Hezbollah terror group.

Israel also uses the Iron Dome defense system to intercept rocket and mortar fire from Gaza which threatens the lives of Israeli civilians.

American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) praised the bill which includes $500 million for missile defense cooperation between the two countries, and up to $50 million for counter-tunnel defense, thanking the Senate for helping to “protect Israel against mounting security threats.”

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tours a terror tunnel built by Hamas on the border of Israel with the Gaza Strip, June 8, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)“The bipartisan measure authorizes $500 million for US-Israel missile defense cooperation and up to $50 million for US-Israel counter-tunnel cooperation,” AIPAC said in a statement.

According to AIPAC, the bill “authorizes funding for both R&D and procurement for the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 missile defense systems. These programs enable Israel to defend its citizens while advancing America’s own missile defense capabilities.”

In addition, the bill authorizes the government to provide counter-tunnel technology, which AIPAC said, “will enable America and Israel to continue their joint efforts to defeat the threat posed by terrorist organizations like Hamas and similar threats America faces in the Middle East and beyond.”

The funding is less than in the 2017 budget, but AIPAC said it is in accordance with the 2016 US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding on security assistance.

No F-35s for Turkey

The bill provides a total of $69 billion in war funding known as overseas contingency operations, authorizes a 2.6 percent pay raise for members of the armed forces, and invests tens of billions in modernizing the Pentagon’s air and sea fleets and missile defenses.

It notably prohibits delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to Turkey, a NATO ally with increasingly fraught relations with Washington, until Ankara can confirm it will not buy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.

And while China and Russia are classified as “strategic competitors” to the United States, the legislation negotiated between the House and Senate left out a proposal by senators that would have blocked a deal Trump reached with Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE that eases tough financial penalties on the firm for helping Iran and North Korea evade American sanctions.

F-35 fighter jets fly over Israel in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The capitulation smoothed things over with the White House, but it angered Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who voted against the bill.

“It’s time we opened our eyes,” Rubio told colleagues.

“We are engaged in a geopolitical competition, not with some poor agrarian country trying to catch up, but with a global super power who is quickly nipping at our heels and doing so unfairly, with the intent of replacing us in the world as the most powerful country militarily, economically, geopolitically and technologically.”

Russia-related sanctions

The NDAA also includes a provision allowing the administration to waive some Russia-related sanctions that would have barred Washington from selling defense-related equipment to countries using Russian technology.

Supporters of the provision stress that the change will help certain countries wean themselves off of Russian influence.

The bill including provisions which allow for better assessment of risks to US national security from transactions involving foreign firms aiming to gain access to sensitive American technology.

Senator John McCain arrives at Capitol Hill in Washington, July 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Marti)

It also extends a restriction on US-Russian military cooperation, and authorizes $65 million to revamp the US nuclear arsenal by developing new “low-yield” nuclear weapons.

This year’s NDAA was named after Senator John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and national security hawk who is home in Arizona battling brain cancer.

“This year’s NDAA represents an important opportunity to implement an effective approach to confront a growing array of threats around the world,” McCain said.

Congress has passed the NDAA for 57 consecutive years, and Senate Democrat Richard Blumenthal noted its success marks “a victory for the notion that national security is above politics and party.”

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