U.S. COVID-19 Relief Package Causes ‘$500 Million for Israel’ to Trend Online

Sum earmarked for missile defense systems actually comes from a previously agreed Pentagon spending bill. Senate also approved $75 million in humanitarian aid to Palestinians, which is $150 million less than the House initially included

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman watching a video showing the launch of the Arrow 3 hypersonic anti-ballistic missile during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, July 28, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman watching a video showing the launch of the Arrow 3 hypersonic anti-ballistic missile during a cabinet meeting in Credit: Menahem Kahana/AP

WASHINGTON – When congressional leaders released the text of the 5,593-page coronavirus relief package on Monday, many observers noted that the bill included “$500 million for Israeli cooperation,” with a large percentage of that dedicated to missile defense systems.

This seemingly disparate allocation of funds – considering negotiators could only agree on $600 stimulus checks for individual Americans – triggered much outrage on social media, to the point where “$500,000,000 for Israel” was trending worldwide.

However, the COVID-19 stimulus deal was actually included in a broader year-end spending package. This included the 2021 Pentagon spending bill, which covers foreign aid for a number of U.S. allies besides Israel.

The United States previously agreed to give Israel $500 million to develop missile defense systems as part of the 2016 memorandum of understanding, which covered a 10-year period and $38 billion in military aid to Israel. As part of that package, which was the subject of months of fierce negotiations between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Israel agreed to not ask for more funds for missile defense systems for the duration of the deal. 

The MOU also stipulated a gradual phasing out of Israel’s right to use 26 percent of U.S. aid to buy equipment from Israeli defense firms over the 10-year period. Israel also immediately ceased using 14 percent of the aid to buy fuel for the Israeli military, among other mutual compromises.

In other words, $500 million in military aid to Israel was not covertly inserted into the COVID-19 stimulus bill.

The bill does, however, highlight a disagreement between the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate over funding earmarked for Palestinians.

The House-approved version originally appropriated $225 million in humanitarian assistance for the West Bank and Gaza, including the ability to use that funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency. The final total passed by the Republican-held Senate, though, was $150 million lighter – just $75 million – without appropriations for any additional UNRWA funding.

A Palestinian girl sitting on an auto rickshaw next to a car loaded with sacks of flour received from the UN Relief and Works Agency, at a warehouse in Gaza City, September 30, 2020.Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

UNRWA officials warned in September that they were in the midst of a financial crisis due to the loss of U.S. funding in 2018, exacerbated by the spread of the coronavirus, an economic meltdown in Lebanon and a major budget deficit. The United States gave UNRWA $360 million in 2017, but only $60 million in 2018 and nothing since.

The COVID relief bill also includes the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which devotes $250 million, split over a five-year period, to promoting cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians. 

The fund, approved by a House subcommittee last July, had widespread approval from major Jewish American organizations. It drew praise from both AIPAC and J Street, as well as the Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, Americans for Peace Now and the American Jewish Committee. The peace fund is seen on Capitol Hill as part of Lowey’s legacy ahead of her retirement from the House of Representatives after 16 terms in office.

Then-Rep. Nita Lowey speaking during a hearing on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget on Capitol Hill, Washington, March 10, 2020.Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP

Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch (Florida) praised the fund, tweeting that it “was a bipartisan effort seen through by so many dedicated public servants in true partnership with a wonderful grassroots community.” The bill, “named for a great champion” of people-to-people work, would provide a meaningful investment and framework for engagement between Israelis and Palestinians, he added.

The Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella organization of groups working in Israel and the Palestinian territories, had long pushed for the legislation to win bipartisan support in Congress. Its executive director, John Lyndon, thanked Deutch and Lowey for their work on “the largest ever investment in [Israeli-Palestinian] peacebuilding.”

Congress also agreed to provide $2.75 billion in financial support for private religious schools as part of the stimulus package, gaining praise from the Orthodox Union.

The funds come from a new $4.05 billion allocation to the Governors Emergency Education Relief fund, which was created last spring by the CARES Act. The new legislation differs, however, in that the $2.75 billion is specifically allocated toward private schools. The funds are meant to be utilized for safety and educational matters, and not to be used for tuition reductions or scholarships. 

“As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has been terribly disruptive and costly to America’s K-12 schools – the students and families they serve, the teachers and many other staffers who work tirelessly to educate our children,” OU Executive Director for Public Policy Nathan Diament said. “That is why it is essential for this latest federal relief package to include a great amount of support for these schools and, among them, America’s Jewish, Catholic and other nonpublic schools.”

The OU credited GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (West Virginia) for pushing forward the provision supporting religious private schools, also singling out a bipartisan group of senators that included Dick Durbin, Lamar Alexander and Roy Blunt. The OU also gave credit to a bipartisan collection of congresspeople including House of Representatives leaders Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, as well as Reps. Virginia Foxx, Josh Gottheimer and Tom Reed.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) speaking at a news conference on the passage of the bipartisan emergency COVID-19 relief bill in Washington, December 21, 2020.Credit: KEN CEDENO/REUTERS

Meanwhile, the appropriations bill, published as part of the $1.4 trillion omnibus bill packaged with the COVID-19 stimulus, doubled funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to $180 million. This federal program offers security grants to provide protection for synagogues, day schools and other houses of worship. The total comes after a bipartisan group of senators, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Rob Portman, Gary Peters, Jacky Rosen and James Lankford, urged the committee to quadruple the total to $360 million.

“We look forward to a time when government funding for security at synagogues and other houses of worship won’t be needed, when people will be able to pray and go about their activities without fear of attacks,” OU President Mark “Moishe” Bane said in a press release. 

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