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US Lawmakers Elevate Israel to 'Strategic Partner,' Approve Billions

Partnership Act Prescribes More Arms, Aid, Export Exemptions

Mar. 16, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By BARBARA OPALL-ROME   |   Comments
Joint Operations: US reconnaissance Marines with Black Sea Rotational Force 12 practice room-clearing drills with soldiers from the Israeli Defense Force during Exercise Noble Shirley in Tel Aviv. (US Marine Corps)
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TEL AVIV — Israel’s supporters in Congress are pushing legislation to bolster aid, advanced arms, export licensing exemptions and augmented in-country stockpiles of US weapons.

The US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014 mandates myriad measures for enhancing Washington’s legal commitment to ensure Israel’s so-called Qualitative Military Edge.

Passed March 5 by the US House of Representatives in an emphatic 410-1 vote, H.R. 938 elevates Israel from “major non-NATO ally” to a new designation as “major strategic partner.”

Majority support is projected for a similar bill in the US Senate.

Beyond the $3.1 billion in annual military aid, billions in multiyear funding for joint missile defense and other defense-related perquisites, the proposed law extends cooperation into energy, cyber and water sectors.

The House version authorizes annual funding for a US-based Joint Energy Research Center while the Senate version requires a presidential feasibility study on the establishment of a joint cyber security center.

Both bills fortify previous laws reflecting longstanding bipartisan and bicameral support for Israel, including the 2012 US-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, urging greater access to US satellite intelligence, aerial tankers, active phased array radar and specialized weaponry.

Both bills extend by another year existing acts governing more than $1 billion in prepositioned US stockpiles available for Israel’s emergency use. Under the new bills, Pentagon authority for replenishing prepositioned materiel extends through 2016.

They also urge the White House to “expeditiously conclude” a new 10-year agreement to assure US security assistance to Israel through 2027.

The legislation urges preferential Israeli access to insurance and financing by the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and Strategic Trade Authority for licensing exemptions on certain dual-use exports.

It also tightens congressional oversight of executive branch-administered Qualitative Military Edge measures, requiring biennial rather than quadrennial progress reports from the president or his designated representatives.

“Israel’s importance as a major strategic partner has been demonstrated time and again,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., co-chair of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus. “Israel remains the closest friend America has in the world. ...Unfortunately, this administration has consistently failed to recognize that fact, often alienating allies like Israel while catering to our enemies.”

Codified by Congress in 1988, Israel’s status as “major non-NATO ally” confers preferential consideration of technology transfer requests, priority access to cut-rate excess defense articles, and inclusion in a spectrum of bilateral and NATO-led training exercises.

The new designation of “major strategic partner,” while highly symbolic, “has not been further defined in US law or by the executive branch,” noted Jim Zanotti, a Middle East specialist with the Congressional Research Service, in a November 2013 report.

But Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli deputy ambassador to Washington with years of experience on Capitol Hill, said the new law would serve to define Israel’s upgraded status.

“The status of major strategic partner is defined by what’s in the bill, and there are a lot of content in both House and Senate versions,” said Ben-David, a former senior associate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

In a March 13 interview, Ben-David said pro-Israel activists had long sought recognition of Israel as a strategic ally of the US.

“This law will elevate the status of this partnership in all its aspects — military, energy, countercyber — in concrete ways that go beyond anything the US has concluded through treaties,” he said.

Even without the pending upgrade in US-Israel ties, US and Israeli officials point to an unprecedented surge in strategic cooperation.

Last week, a sizable contingent of US Marines equipped with MV-22 tilt-rotors and other gear were here for a joint Noble Shirley exercise with Israeli counterparts. This month, the Israel Navy will participate in Noble Dina, an extensive trilateral sea-based exercise with US and Greek navies.

The two countries also are exploring a deferred payment plan that will allow Israel’s near-term acquisition of its second squadron of F-35 fighters and V-22 tilt rotors.

Both countries are planning to extend cooperative missile defense programs beyond 2015.

In a March 10 address to the Institute for National Security Studies, Yair Ramati, director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, cited extraordinary support from Washington in procurement of additional Iron Dome intercepting batteries, near-term deployment of the joint David’s Sling system and preparation for low-rate initial production of the newest upper-tier Arrow-3 system.

Email: bopallrome@defensenews.com.

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