Why is the Obama administration cutting funding to Israeli missile defense just as talk of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is reaching a crescendo?
As it did last year, Congress, frustrated with the administration’s reduced request, has already moved to supplement the funding. Reps. Howard Berman,D-Calif., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,R-Fla., have introduced the bipartisan Iron Dome Support Act, which would provide funding, as of yet unspecified, for more Iron Dome systems, which the administration’s budget had zeroed out.
Only now that Congress has moved to boost support for Iron Dome has the Pentagon followed behind and responded with a funding request of its own.
Far from seeking to cow Israel into political concessions, however, the president’s budget merely reflects his disenchantment with missile defense. Israeli missile defense is merely a pawn in his greater budgetary chess game.
The United States and Israel have been cooperating on missile defense initiatives for decades. The U.S. has provided more than a billion dollars to these programs, which are distinct from the foreign military assistance Washington gives Jerusalem.
Two of these programs, the Arrow systems — two medium- and long-range anti-ballistic missile systems — and David’s Sling, a short-range anti-missile system, have been jointly owned and managed by the two countries since 2008, with each providing matching funds. To be accurate, therefore, the United States is not aiding these Israeli programs, but is actually funding its own missile defense programs.
In contrast, Iron Dome, designed to target short-range rockets, is wholly Israeli developed, owned and operated, though the U.S. provided funding for it in 2011.
In the recent rocket barrage from Gaza, Iron Dome batteries had a nearly 80 percent success rate against Grad-class rockets.
The Obama administration’s recently released budget request details a cut in funding to the “Israeli Cooperative,” as the jointly developed Arrow and David’s Sling programs are known, from $106.1 million in fiscal 2012 to $99.9 million in fiscal 2013. And since Congress more than doubled the administration’s request last year to $235.7 million, President Obama’s budget would more than halve the cooperative’s funding. Moreover, this marks the third consecutive year that the administration has requested less funding and it will not be the last, according to its own budget projections.
Following a steady upward stream of funding during the Bush administration, President Obama seems to be consciously dialing back these joint U.S.-Israeli initiatives. So, what gives? Critics have assumed that the reduction is related to the president’s overall policy of pressuring Israel. Unhappy with supposed Israeli intransigence in the peace process or concerned that the Israelis are disregarding American warnings against military action against Iran, the president is symbolically demonstrating his displeasure, knowing that Congress would likely supplement his budget request anyway.
This explanation would be believable if the administration had not already announced the reduction in its fiscal 2012 five-year budget issued in February 2011. Therefore, no 2011 spats with Israel changed the funding outlay.
Other explanations include a planned 3 billion shekel Israeli defense budget cut, which, if partly applied to the Arrow systems and David’s Sling, would mandate an equal American cut to those systems, since both countries contribute equal amounts to the Israeli Cooperative. However, those cuts were announced in the fall of 2011, well after the administration had declared its intentions.
Similarly, it’s clear that Israel could use the increased funding. Congress has topped up the administration’s requests in past years, and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. recently published a request for more American funding of Iron Dome, calling it an “investment in diplomacy” and peace.
Even stranger, while the administration did not alter its five-year budget outlay for the program between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013, it did reduce it between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2012.
In fiscal 2011, it requested $581.2 million for fiscal 2011-’15, whereas in fiscal 2012, it requested $502.6 million for fiscal 2012-’16. So what explains the 14 percent cut?
Instead of some Israel-specific policy, it is simply the administration’s coolness toward missile defense — its fiscal 2013 budget request for all missile defense initiatives is the lowest in nearly a decade — as well as its commitment to large defense cuts.
Beginning with remarks during the 2008 campaign followed by the cancellation of agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic, the Obama administration has been skeptical about missile defense from the outset and has put, or in this case retracted, money where its mouth is.
Critics rightly point out that the administration should be devoting more, not fewer, funds to missile defense to defend against Iranian ballistic missiles. As such, Congress’ move to fund Iron Dome and likely increased funding to the Israeli Cooperative is welcome.
However, missile defense writ large, not Israel, is being targeted by the president. There are many good reasons to directly chastise President Obama’s Israel policy, but this is not one of them.
Gabriel Max Scheinmann, a visiting fellow from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and a doc-toral candidate in government at Georgetown University, Washington.