Politics

Congress Generous, Again, With US Funds for Israel’s Defense

Package for Israeli antimissile systems at near record levels, even as transparency questions swirl

The Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency completed a successful flight test of the Arrow 3 interceptor missile. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Congress is poised to provide Israel with another $705 million for that country’s missile defenses — nearly five times the Trump administration’s request and the second largest annual installment of such aid to date.

The House plans to vote this week to approve a fiscal 2018 national defense policy conference report that would, among its many provisions, authorize the aid to Israel for several antimissile systems. The Senate is expected to follow suit soon and send the bill to the president. And whenever Congress completes work on a defense appropriations bill, lawmakers are highly likely to provide all of that money — and maybe more.

Despite Congress’ generosity, the newly minted defense authorization measure betrays a little-known fact. According to congressional aides, the United States is not clear on how much Israel has contributed to its own missile defense programs, as compared to the amount given to it by Washington.

Neither the Israeli Embassy nor the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency answered a question that Roll Call posed last month on how much Israel has spent on the three versions of its Arrow antimissile system, as distinct from the amount provided by U.S. taxpayers.

Reflecting U.S. intent to better understand how much of the bill for Israel’s defense is being footed by America, the final defense bill demands, going forward, that Israel match U.S. funding. But the conferees backed away  from even that demand by saying Israel’s “best efforts” to match U.S. funding would be sufficient — one of several ways Congress has shown the limits of how tough it will get with Israel.

If the $705 million is appropriated, it will bring the amount of U.S. money spent on Israeli missile defenses to more than $5 billion over the past 13 years. The only one of those years during which such spending was higher was fiscal 2014, when Washington delivered $729 million.

Billions spent

The $5 billion-plus in missile defense money for Israel since fiscal 2006 came on top of the roughly $39 billion in other, mostly military, U.S. aid to Israel in those same years (about $3 billion a year).

All told, over 70 years, the United States has provided Israel with more than $125 billion and counting, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Starting in fiscal 2019 and extending through fiscal 2028, annual U.S. military aid to Israel will grow from $3.1 billion to $3.3 billion and will include a mandatory minimum of $500 million for missile defense, subject to all-but-certain congressional approval. The future payments are set forth in a U.S.-Israel accord reached last year under the Obama administration.

Israel’s per capita wealth is in the world’s top 25, according to the International Monetary Fund. But even fiscal hawks in Congress who criticize most forms of foreign aid nonetheless back the money for Israel, a longtime U.S. ally.

Despite that support, in the past several years lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about what America is getting for its investment. Washington has stipulated in recent legislation that some of the missile defense money for Israel must support U.S. defense contractors that, as a result, will now “co-produce” some of the systems, generating income and jobs in the United States.

The new defense authorization bill, or NDAA, will require the Pentagon to certify to Congress that co-production agreements with Israel are being enforced for three weapons programs: the Iron Dome, a system that intercepts short-range rockets; David’s Sling, which would intercept long-range rockets and cruise missiles; and the Arrow 3, a recently fielded interceptor designed to kill medium-range ballistic missiles.

For David’s Sling and Arrow 3, in particular, at least 50 percent of the systems must be made in the United States, the bill says.

Not-so-tough love

The conference report reveals congressional impatience over not knowing how much Israel is spending relative to the United States on its missile shield. But the measure also reveals congressional reluctance to be too hard-nosed about it.

For David’s Sling and Arrow 3, the conferees said the Pentagon must certify that Israel is spending according to a “one-for-one cash match.” But in the same sentence, the conferees slacken that hard requirement by saying Israel may contribute “another matching amount that otherwise meets best efforts” as determined by the two countries.

In the case of Arrow 3, the Pentagon must certify that the U.S. and Israel have completed a bilateral co-production agreement, the bill says. Further, the bill says, the agreement must establish “complete transparency” of Israeli plans for the Arrow 3 program, including Israel’s “funding profiles”— or budget plans — for the initiative.

Despite setting all these apparent conditions on U.S. aid, the bill does not actually make the funding hinge on satisfaction of the requirements.

Another sign of congressional leniency toward Israel was the Senate’s softening in September of a provision in its version of the defense authorization bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee had written its bill to withhold the $120 million slated for Israel’s Arrow 3 missile system until two intercept tests were conducted in the United States to demonstrate that U.S. and Israeli systems could work together.

But senators simply struck the provision, with a floor amendment written by Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, the top lawmakers on the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. And the House-Senate conference went along. At least one of the tests is planned for this year, but the funding is no longer contingent on the tests occurring.

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