By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Barack Obama’s near parting gift to Israel, a guarantee of $38 billion in defense assistance over a decade, distills into a single document what he’s been saying throughout eight fraught years: I have your back, but on my terms.
The agreement, signed Wednesday, Sept. 14 in the State Department’s Treaty Room, increases assistance for Israel over the prior Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2007 under the George W. Bush administration and guaranteeing Israel $31 billion over 10 years. But it also substantially shrinks the role Congress plays in a critical forum shaping U.S.-Israel relations, defense assistance, and in so doing diminishes the influence of the mainstream pro-Israel community, a sector that at times has been an irritant to Obama.
Wrapped into the $38 billion memorandum is $5 billion in missile defense funding, with clauses placing tough restrictions on Israel’s ability to ask for supplements from Congress. Under Obama and Bush, that’s been an arena where the pro-Israel lobby has flexed its muscle over the last decade or so, consistently asking Congress for multiples of the missile defense appropriations requested by each president – and getting it.
“The MOU as it’s constructed seems to obviate the need for Congress’ traditional role in recent years,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “What this means is that the relationship between Congress and Israel will have to evolve. Members of Congress feel they are being pushed out of a role that they relish.”
Democrats in Congress praised the deal unequivocally, but Republicans had caveats.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee for the Middle East, led passage of a congressional resolution urging an extension of the defense assistance – coincidentally, just hours after the sides announced a deal was in the offing on Monday. Ros-Lehtinen said she intended to subject the agreement to congressional scrutiny.
“It is important for Congress to conduct its oversight authority and examine the MOU closely in order to ensure that this agreement is mutually beneficial and meets the needs of both the U.S. and Israel,” she said in a statement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee dispensing foreign aid, was infuriated by the arrangement.
“We can’t have the executive branch dictating what the legislative branch will do for a decade based on an agreement we are not a party to,” he told The Washington Post this week, and pledged to push more funds for Israel through Congress.
Jacob Nagel, the acting Israeli national security adviser who led talks ahead of the agreement, told reporters on Wednesday, before the formal signing, that the Israelis had asked Graham to back off.
“Senator Graham is one of the greatest supporters of Israel in Congress,” he said. “But everyone who spoke with him” on Israel’s team in the talks “said it was not a good idea – Israel is a country that honors its agreements.”
Indeed, written into the agreement is Israel’s pledge to return to the U.S. government any extra monies that Congress approves on top of the memorandum before it kicks in, October 2018. There is an exception for requests for emergency assistance in the event of “major conflicts.”
There are other rollbacks in the deal demanded by Obama and his team, headed by Susan Rice, the national security adviser. Israel is currently the only country allowed to spend some of its defense assistance – up to 26 percent – on its own defense industries. That will be phased to zero by the end of the agreement, and all funding will be spent on U.S. suppliers and contractors.
The memorandum narrows the spectrum of the U.S.-Israel relationship to the two countries’ executive branches. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign praised the deal. A JTA request for comment from the campaign of Donald Trump was not answered.
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington who helped shape the agreement, said Obama’s imprimatur made it clear that the relationship had the backing of the U.S. political spectrum following two years of tensions between the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration.
“It shows that the strength of the relationship is in being able to weather disagreements,” Dermer said.
The group that was at the forefront of the Iran battle, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, lauded the agreement.
“We commend President Obama and his administration for forging this landmark agreement,” AIPAC said. “It demonstrates America’s strong and unwavering commitment to Israel.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League CEO, who attended the signing, said the stability of the agreement in a volatile Middle East outweighed whatever political price pro-Israel groups might pay.
“We have surging Islamic radicalism, we have an expansionist and hostile Iran,” he said. “We have a degree of dislocation and suffering we haven’t seen since the Second World War. Rather than try to game this, who’s up who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, what’s important is that this locks down a commitment that will persist not just with this administration, but the next one and the administration after that.”
CAP: Jacob Nagel, left, Israel’s acting national security adviser, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon, Sept. 14, 2016. (Embassy of Israel)