Obama and Israel
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|Dan Pollack and Josh London||September 22nd 2016|
The recent signing of the new 10 year memorandum of understanding (MOU) on security assistance between the US and Israel is less of an accomplishment than the fanfare around it might indicate. In the MOU, signed September 14th in Washington, the US pledged $38 Billion in military aid to Israel over the next ten years (2019-2028); Israel promised to no longer seek additional funds from Congress, and for the next two years has promised to reject any additional funding. Finally, the ability of Israel to spend one quarter of the aid in its own domestic defense industry, rather than having to spend all of it in the US, will be phased out. This MOU represents modest monetary gains to Israel, but sadly reflects a subtle diminution in the US-Israel relationship.
Critics of the deal insist that Israel should have been given more money. To begin with, giving military aid to Israel is a very popular and strongly bi-partisan action in both Houses of Congress. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a leading pro-Israel critic of this deal, points out that he is soon to introduce a bill to provide an additional $1.5 billion to Israel for additional missile defense needs, and it is very likely to pass. Under this MOU, however, Israel is obligated to not accept the additional money; this will probably translate to fewer Iranian missiles intercepted if Israel has to defend against an attack by Hezbollah. No one can know what the future holds, but in the absence of this MOU, Congress would almost certainly still give Israel US military assistance at levels equivalent to or higher than what President Obama has just pledged. Since an MOU has no formal status, future presidents are not actually bound by them. Recall the 2004 President Bush letter to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon rejecting the 1949 Armistice lines as the basis for determining a future Palestinian Arab state and recognizing the “new realities on the ground,” including the major Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Having found this “understanding” inconvenient to his own policies, President Obama simply determined that it did not apply, and would be ignored. The more binding aspects of this current MOU, however, are the voluntary concessions Obama induced Israel to make. These will result in greatly reduced Israeli flexibility in working with Congressional allies to address rapidly emerging threats, or to seek additional funding.
While this MOU is an increase over the previous MOU, it is a relatively modest increase. Under the previous MOU, the US gave Israel $3.1 billion annually in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) assistance, but all the missile defense funding was given separately and was never counted as part of the MOU total. So the current MOU deal of $3.8 billion in annual aid is actually just $3.3 billion in FMF plus $500 million in missile defense funding, which is now being included in the total MOU package.
Incorporating missile defense funding in the MOU is not merely an accounting trick to make the total look more generous. President Obama is also trying to limit the role of Congress in US-Israel policy, and is potentially exacerbating the growing partisan divide over Israel. Since 2009, appropriating money for Iron Dome and related Israeli missile defense systems has become the primary bi-partisan arena for Congressional pro-Israel activity, and the one area where Democrats could safely break with the Obama Administration and give expression to recognizably pro-Israel legislative activity. Taking this away from Congress effectively removes the only remaining bipartisan center of support for Israel’s security in Congress. It is likely not a coincidence that this has been an explicit goal of J-Street and other opponents of pro-Israel Congressional activity.
There are, of course, also some real benefits to Israel from finalizing this MOU. This surely simplifies planning for the Israeli Ministry of Defense bureaucrats. Likewise the regional and domestic benefits to Israel of announcing further evidence of its ongoing close relationship to the US are undisputed, but the timing of the announcement is puzzling to nearly every observer. The deal could have been finalized anytime in the next year. It is almost certain that either Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump would have embraced a similar deal, and probably without requiring serious concessions.
Once our presidential election takes place, however, there has been wide speculation that France is expected to introduce a Security Council Resolution declaring all Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria illegal, which is not current international law. In addition, they may propose a Security Council Resolution attempting to demarcate the borders of a proposed future Palestinian Arab state, in contravention of existing protocols and agreements between Israel and the PLO. The US has nearly always pledged to veto resolutions of this type, preventing them from coming forward, but the danger for November is that the US may abstain on such resolutions, thus allowing them to pass, and then use the supposed generosity of the MOU as a shield from criticism. This week, 88 Senators signed a letter asking the President to veto any “one-sided” anti-Israel UN resolutions. Speaking for the ZOA, there will be no excuse for the Obama administration betraying Israel at the UN, and the generosity of the MOU will not figure in that debate.
According to President Obama, this new MOU “is just the most recent reflection” of his “steadfast commitment to the security of the State of Israel.” The President’s actual commitment is atrocious, and it appears his parting act will be to slightly weaken the US-Israel relationship. By continuing the charade of conspicuously rewarding Israel while simultaneously diminishing the Jewish State’s position, this MOU well reflects Obama’s particularly troubling approach to Israel’s security.