A senior Republican senator has harshly criticized U.S. President Barack Obama and his national security adviser, Susan Rice, saying they have "not (been) generous enough" toward Israel in negotiations over a new military aid deal.
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In an interview with Haaretz, Sen. Lindsey Graham said Congress doesn’t see itself as obligated by any agreement Obama signs with the Israeli government. He added that most legislators support increasing aid to Israel beyond the level proposed by the White House.
Graham, of South Carolina, is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that deals with foreign aid. Aid to Israel constitutes a significant portion of America’s total foreign aid budget.
Over the past few months, Graham has tried to push through a proposal to increase military aid to Israel in 2017 and 2018, even before the new agreement now under negotiation takes effect. He proposed that during those two years, military aid to Israel total $3.4 billion rather than $3.1 billion, meaning an extra $600 million in total would be added to the existing military aid package.
Graham even added this proposal to the Senate’s annual foreign aid bill. But the White House was furious, viewing it as a violation of America’s existing foreign aid deal with Israel, which expires in October 2018. White House officials warned Israel that not only would they refuse to approve Graham’s proposal, they would see no reason to sign a new aid deal with Israel if Israel lent a hand to violating the existing pact.
Last week, Graham visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister said he was unhappy with both the level of aid the Obama administration was offering in the new deal and the conditions the administration was attaching to it. But he also told Graham that the proposal to increase aid over the next two years was complicating Israel’s negotiations with the White House.
Graham told Haaretz that the White House is exerting undue pressure on Israel.
“I think the Israeli government is concerned that the administration doesn’t think there should be an increase in funding for 2017, but they feel bound by the number,” he said. “The increase proposed in the Senate bill means that the whole appropriations committee – not just me – thinks Israel needs more support.”
Graham also noted that the Obama administration has agreed to go beyond the sums specified in military aid deals with other countries, such as Jordan, when extra aid seemed to be needed.
“I made a decision, given the deterioration in the region, that Israel needs more funding. In the last three years, we increased funding to Jordan by $275 million outside of the MoU, because Jordan was under siege,” Graham said, referring to the memorandum of understanding on military aid. “The administration didn’t object to that increase, but they are objecting to the increase to Israel for 2017.”
The senator said that in contrast to the White House’s position, a bipartisan majority of Congress favors increasing aid to Israel both under the new agreement and right now, while the old deal is still in effect.
“I am not bound by the MoU as a member of Congress,” he said. “Congress is not a party to the MoU and the MoU can’t bind Congress. Everybody in Congress wants to be generous to Israel like we did with Jordan.”
Graham revealed that during negotiations on the new agreement, which began nine months ago, Israel had requested a package worth at least $4.6 billion a year – $4 billion for ordinary military purchasing plus $600 million for developing missile defense systems. In total, that would come to $46 billion over the 10-year life span of the agreement.
The administration rejected this request, Graham continued. Instead, it initially offered $3.4 billion a year for ordinary purchasing plus $300 million a year for missile-defense development. Later, it agreed to up the missile defense component to $500 million a year. Thus, altogether it was offering $3.9 billion a year, or $39 billion over the course of the decade.
However, the White House’s condition for the offer was that it constitute a maximum cap, meaning Israel would have to promise not to seek any additional aid from Congress over the 10 years the deal was in force.
Graham said the White House offer doesn’t provide an adequate solution to the missile threat Israel faces, nor does it enable flexibility should the regional situation change in the coming years in a way that worsens the threats.
“Netanyahu told me Hezbollah received from Iran precision-guided missiles that are military game-changers,” he said. “According to the prime minister and his team, these missiles present a greater threat than presented previously.”
One of the main disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington during the negotiations was an American demand to gradually phase out the existing arrangement that allows Israel to spend about 40 percent of its aid package on military purchases from Israeli companies and on buying fuel for the army. Israel opposed this demand, but the White House refused to budge, and Netanyahu was forced to give in.
Graham considers this demand mistaken and even contrary to America’s interests, because America benefits from many products developed by Israel’s defense industries, and these products have saved the lives of American soldiers.
“Eighty-three senators signed a letter to the president that we be generous towards Israel. It is my belief that there are not even 10 members of Senate who object to allowing the IDF to buy fuel from U.S. aid money or [object] that the money be used to boost Israeli defense industries,” he said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “I have never heard one member of Congress concerned about this.”
Rice, the national security adviser, has been leading the negotiations with Israel on the new aid package. But Graham charged that she doesn’t take the threats facing Israel seriously enough. Instead of working to strengthen Israel against Tehran in the wake of the Iranian nuclear agreement and the removal of sanctions on Iran, he charged that the White House has engaged in petty bargaining with Netanyahu over every dollar.
“It is not just about the MoU, but about the message that it sends. I want Iran to see that Israel gets more support from the U.S. and not less,” he said. “I want to send a signal to Iran that while they get stronger, our allies in the region also get stronger. I don’t think it is an American interest for Iran to think we are negotiating a deal with Israel that is less generous.
“If I introduce legislation tomorrow to give Israel 1 percent from what Iran gets, which is 150 billion that goes for their war machine and Hezbollah, so we are talking about 1.5 billion – there will be a lot of support for it,” he added.