After long and arduous negotiations, Israel and the Obama administration have agreed on a landmark military aid package that would increase U.S. aid to Israel over the next 10 years. But the White House is reluctant to sign the deal because officials are upset one leading lawmaker won’t go along: Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
The new agreement, which officials say would raise Israel’s annual package of military aid from $3.1 billion to $3.3 billion starting in 2018, is a complicated deal that both the White House and the Israeli government badly want to announce before President Obama leaves office, and preferably much sooner. A senior administration official described the deal as “the largest single pledge of military assistance to any country in U.S. history.” It’s Obama’s parting attempt to establish a legacy of strong U.S. support for Israel’s security. The negotiations on the memorandum of understanding (MOU), as it is known, have been finished for several weeks.
But before announcing it, the White House wants to make sure that Congress won’t undermine the deal by going its own way on aid to Israel. Graham, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the foreign affairs budget, has already marked up a bill that would give Israel $3.4 billion next year, more than the number the White House negotiated.
The administration hasn’t complained to Graham directly; it told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about its problem, and he talked to Graham about it in a phone call last month. But in Graham’s view, Congress has no obligation to agree to the deal, given that it was not included in the negotiations.
“The Israeli prime minister told me the administration is refusing to sign the MOU until I agree to change my appropriation markup back to $3.1 billion,” Graham said. “I said, ‘Tell the administration to go F themselves.’ ”
What’s more, during the negotiations, the administration advocated for a provision that would bar the Israeli government from lobbying Congress for additional money for the life of the MOU, Graham said.
“I’m offended that the administration would try to take over the appropriations process. If they don’t like what I’m doing, they can veto the bill,” Graham said. “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.”
The core of the dispute centers on the fact that the Obama administration has included support for Israeli missile-defense funding in the aid package for the first time. Previously, missile-defense money was requested and given on top of the yearly aid commitment. To the White House, this makes that funding more secure and predictable.
“The fact that under our offer Israel can count on the administration’s commitment to provide a substantial level of missile-defense assistance for a 10-year period is substantively different from the missile- defense support it has received in previous years,” the official said.
The deal would set U.S. funding for Israeli missile defense at $500 million per year, just above the $487 million provided in 2016. The Senate appropriations bill would give Israel $600 million for missile defense next year, and the House Armed Services Committee passed a bill authorizing that same amount. The administration asked for only $145.8 million in its 2017 budget request.
Graham said the MOU should be a base, not a ceiling, for how much security aid the United States gives to Israel. Every Democrat on Graham’s subcommittee voted for his bill, and in July, 37 senators, including vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine (D-Va.), signed a letter calling on Congress to increase Israeli missile-defense funding above the administration’s request.
“Amid growing rocket and missile threats in the Middle East, it is prudent for the United States and Israel to advance and accelerate bilateral cooperation on missile defense technologies,” the senators wrote.
According to Graham, Netanyahu told him that Israel was ready to sign the deal but didn’t ask Graham to succumb to the administration’s demand that Congress preapprove it.
“I asked the prime minister, ‘If you don’t need this money, I’ll gladly change it,’ ” Graham said. “He said, ‘No, you know I can’t say we don’t need it, because the threats are real.’ ”
Senators in both parties are still sore over not having had much say before the Obama administration agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran. Graham and other Republicans also object to other provisions of the new agreement, including that it requires Israel to gradually stop using U.S. aid to purchase weapons from Israeli defense contractors.
That congressional Republicans are advocating more aid to Israel than the Israeli government agreed to is certainly odd. But even more odd is the White House pressuring Congress to promise to get out of the Israel aid game for 10 years after Obama leaves office.
The White House will have to decide whether a deal meant to repair Obama’s relationship with Israel and stand as part of his legacy is worth more than a fight with Congress over funding power. Congress will still be there after Obama is gone and will demand its say in Israeli security aid going forward either way.