WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump made headlines in Washington and in Israel on Thursday by saying that Israel will be able to handle the security challenges created by his decision to withdraw all American forces from Syria, because “we give Israel $4.5 billion a year” in security assistance.
The unusual comment caused many of Trump’s critics, on both sides of the Atlantic, to accuse him of turning his back on Israel, even though Trump made clear that his administration “will always be there for Israel.” Trump cited moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as proof of his support for the country, pushing back against criticism from leading pro-Israel voices in the U.S. over the past week.
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One question that a number of Haaretz readers raised following Trump’s remarks had to do with the numbers he mentioned. Where did the number $4.5 billion come from? Was it true? And was Trump right when he added, towards the end of his comment, “we give frankly a lot more than that (to Israel) if you look at the books?”
The United States did not provide Israel with $4.5 billion in last year’s budget. However, that doesn’t mean Trump is wrong, or that he invented the number out of the blue. There is some sense behind his choice, but it requires combining a number of different budgets related to American support of Israel.
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In 2016, the Israeli government and the Obama administration signed a joint memorandum of understanding which outlined the future of American security aid to Israel. Under the agreement, the U.S. will provide Israel with $3.8 billion every year, starting from 2019, for a period of one decade.
The memorandum was overwhelmingly approved by Congress earlier this year, and it will go into effect starting from next year, despite a last-minute effort by Republican Senator Rand Paul to block its implementation.
The $3.8 billion number is a very impressive one, and it’s no coincidence that Obama’s best reply to criticisms about his relationship with Israel was that under his leadership, the United States agreed to provide Israel with more security assistance than ever before in the history of the Israeli-American alliance.
But 3.8 billion is a smaller number than 4.5 billion, which raised the question: where are the missing $700 million Trump was referring to?
Those are most likely found in legislation approved by Congress in early 2018, which allocated just over $700 million to supporting Israel’s various missile defense systems, including the Iron Dome system. This was included in the federal spending bill of 2018, and it was an increase of more than $100 million compared to the amount of money provided for Iron Dome and other missile defense systems in the previous year.
The missile defense support budget is separate from the $3.8 billion Israel will receive under the 2016 agreement signed by Obama and Netanyahu. When the two support budgets are combined, the math behind Trump’s comment becomes clear: 3.8 plus 0.7 adds up to 4.5.
It should be noted, however, that many experts view the U.S. assistance to Israel as highly beneficial to the United States. Much of the security assistance budget returns to the U.S. through Israeli arms and technology purchases from American companies, which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition, a large percentage of the money allocated by Congress to missile defense systems is invested in research, which is as valuable to the U.S. as as it is to Israel.
As for Trump’s additional sentence about “frankly giving much more” there are different ways to interpret it. Perhaps Trump is referring to American support for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, which revived tens of millions of dollars this year from his administration? It is a well-known secret in Washington that the strongest advocates for continued American support of the PA’s security forces are Israeli security and intelligence officials, who want to keep in place the successful coordination between the IDF and those forces.