Calling Congress: The U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding

by Shoshana Bryen
September 15, 2016

Yes. It is a lot of money.

Yes. A ten-year deal provides a stable base for Israeli planning.

Yes. With the unsettled American political situation and the unsettled military situation in Israel’s neighborhood, stability counts.

No. Israel’s military industries will not collapse without the use of 25% of its American aid internally.

Yes. Israel remains a close and respected ally of the American military establishment.

So why does the new U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) feel oddly coercive on the part of President Obama? True, the current U.S. president finds the current prime minister of Israel to be a strategic liability regarding his plans for Iran as well as a general pain in the neck. So there is the “punishment” angle. But at least as important is the ongoing power play between the president and Congress. This encompasses missile defense, an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMA) for Iraq and Syria, climate change, the Iran deal, “no first use” nuclear policy, Israel, and more.

Israel is the target of both direct and indirect presidential fire as the MOU sets out to change fundamental security relations between Israel and the Congress, which, for the past eight years, have been most valuable in the area that President Obama finds least acceptable — missile defense.

In 2012, Defense News wrote that not only had the administration requested a funding cut for jointly developed missile defense programs, but that “this marks the third consecutive year that the administration has requested less funding and it will not be the last, according to its own budget projections.” And, indeed, from the 2010 request (Obama’s first) to the 2017 request (his last) the Administration has shortchanged Israel’s missile defense requirements with the sure knowledge that Congress would put the money back. That way, the president could claim to be a friend of Israel’s defense — by citing the total figure — without actually acknowledging Israel’s needs by putting the money in the Executive Branch request to Congress.

Now President Obama is tying Israel’s hands for the future by extracting a promise that it will not approach Congress for funds in excess of those in the MOU “unless it is at war.” What does that mean? Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria still maintain a state of war with Israel, as does Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and sometimes the Palestinian Authority. Did the Obama Administration leave Israel a loophole for Congressional assistance? Or is it denying that Israel lives in a perpetual and evolving state of threat and often fights “wars” that are essential to the protection of its population, but are not formally declared?

Would the administration agree that the 2014 Gaza operation, launched in response to the launching of more than 4,000 Hamas rockets against Israel, was a “war?” Congress added $42.7 million this year for technology to detect and destroy Hamas cross-border tunnels — in a year in which Israel is no more, or less, “at war” than last year, but in which the number and sophistication of tunnels is growing.

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