White House Officials: Funding for Israeli Missile Defense Should Be Part of New Aid Deal

Excluding the funds from the proposed 2017 U.S. defense budget would obviate the need to renegotiate the sum every year, and therefore better for Israel, they say.

Iron Dome intercepts rocket fired toward Ashkelon.
An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, July 5, 2014. AP

The U.S. administration said on Wednesday that its threat to veto a Congressional proposal to increase funding for Israeli missile defense does not reflect a desire to cut aid to Israel, but merely a disagreement over the proper legislative vehicle for allocating this aid.

The White House believes the missile defense funding should be included in the 10-year military aid agreement the two countries are now negotiating, and not in the 2017 defense budget, as Congress proposed, senior administration officials explained. This would also be better for Israel, they argued, because it would obviate the need for Congress and the administration to renegotiate the sum every year.

“We are prepared to make an unprecedented multi-year missile defense commitment as part of a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel on military assistance,” one senior White House official said. “This commitment, which would amount to billions of dollars over 10 years, would be the first long-term pledge on missile defense support to Israel, affording Israel robust support for its missile defense, as well as predictability and facilitating long-term planning for missile defense initiatives.”

The officials said the sum the administration had proposed for Israeli missile defense in the 2017 budget was adequate. Moreover, they said, the extra $455 million that Congress was seeking to add would force the United States to cut back significantly on its own missile defense development.

The money for Israeli missile defense comes from the same budget as the money for American missile defense, one explained. Therefore, increased funding for Israel would reduce the amount of money available for developing “critical” American missile defense systems, at a time when the missile threat against the U.S. from North Korea is only growing, he said.

The officials also said that if necessary, the administration would give Israel special emergency grants for missile defense on top of the regular funding, something it has done several times over the past few years. For instance, they noted, during the 2014 war in Gaza, Washington gave Israel an extra $225 million to purchase additional Iron Dome batteries.

The bilateral negotiations on a new military aid deal for the next decade are approaching the moment of decision, and several disagreements between the parties remain unresolved. Senior Israeli and American officials both said that the talks have almost completely exhausted their usefulness, and within a few weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to decide whether to sign the deal offered by U.S. President Barack Obama or not.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Jacob Nagel, the acting national security advisor and head of the Israeli negotiating team, said at a briefing for diplomatic reporters on Wednesday that Netanyahu is interested in signing the agreement with Obama, but only if it meets Israel’s security needs.

“Unequivocally, we want to reach an agreement with the Obama Administration, but not at any price,” he said. “Figure out for yourself what that means.”

Meanwhile, at a briefing in Washington last Friday for representatives of Jewish organizations, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that negotiations on the aid agreement with Israel have effectively ended. Two sources who attended the briefing told Haaretz that Blinken said the deal the U.S. is offering won’t change any further and the ball is now in Netanyahu’s court.

“Blinken said the Israeli prime minister is the one who has to decide whether to sign the agreement now or to wait for the next president,” one said.

Blinken arrived in Israel on Wednesday at the head of a delegation of 19 senior American officials from various government agencies to participate in the annual strategic dialogue with Israel, which will take place Thursday at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

In an address to the Herzliya Conference Wednesday night, Blinken hinted that the U.S. is waiting for Israel's response on the military aid deal. Washington, he told the conference, is ready to sign a memorandum of understanding with Israel that would grant it a larger military aid package than American gives any other country in the world and would be in force until 2029.

The U.S. and Israel signed their last military aid agreement in 2007. In that deal, which expires at the end of 2018, the United States promised Israel $30 billion over the course of 10 years, an average of $3 billion a year. Negotiations on the new 10-year agreement began in November 2015.