WASHINGTON – Meeting with senior Trump administration officials in Washington last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman twice referenced the growing threat posed by North Korea’s missile programs preoccupying the White House in its first days on the job.
Liberman described to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson an “axis of evil” stretching from Tehran to Pyongyang, according to the Defense Ministry – a striking reference to a past time, the era of president George W. Bush, in which Iran’s military cooperation with North Korea was said to have peaked. American security cooperation with Israel once again has implications beyond the Middle East, the ministry added.
The US and Israel have worked together for years to mitigate missile threats from Iran and North Korea, which have in turn worked jointly to advance their programs.
But Washington’s cooperation with Jerusalem has been fraught with complications that naturally come with the territory of missile defense.
While offensive missile technology can be easily exported, missile defense technology is threat-specific. It is unclear whether Israel’s response programs to its unique threat landscape are transferable to the US or its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, which face a multitude of missile challenges from an enemy already nuclear-armed.
The question of transferability has led to tensions over funding after Israel began drawing nearly 10% of the Pentagon’s own missile defense budget since its war with Hamas in Gaza in 2014. During negotiations over a new decade-long defense package with Israel in 2016, Obama administration officials suggested its own Missile Defense Agency was running dry of resources to conduct research for the unique intercontinental threats facing the US homeland.
The Obama administration fought to incorporate missile defense funding into the deal – a departure from their preceding defense agreement with Israel – due to its concerns with overall cuts to its own program, one senior official said at the time.
US missile defense aid to Israel was representing "a growing share of a shrinking budget," the Obama official said. "Given that funding for Israeli missile defense comes out of the same account as US domestic missile defense programs, additional support for Israel means fewer resources are available for critical US programs at a time when the missile threat from North Korea is increasing."
One missile defense expert, Rebeccah Heinrichs with the Hudson Institute, questioned whether US funding for its own programs was actually affected by funding to Israel – and suggested the decision to threaten an aid cut may have been political.
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"The Obama administration so deeply cut US homeland missile defense funding that I found it pretty rich it tried to argue that US contributions to Israeli missile defense was somehow in competition with funding for US defenses," Heinrich said. "Any country concerned about the Iranian ballistic missile program must be concerned about North Korea’s ballistic missile program because of their willingness to cooperate on development."
Israel’s program provides the US with some clear strategic benefits: It is one of the few battlefields in the world in which missile defense programs have actually been tested, and may reasonably face future tests. And the Jewish state shares with the Pentagon much of the technology it produces with US parts using US contractors.
The question is whether Israel’s short, intermediate and long-range programs intended to diminish threats from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran can be of practical use to South Korea, Japan and the US as they seek to mitigate a decreasingly stable North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.
The transferability of Israel’s programs – in addition to proof of Iranian collusion with North Korea, still unseen – might in the eyes of its advocates in Washington justify an increase in US aid beyond what was ultimately detailed in Obama’s defense package.
Under that agreement, Israel obligated itself not to ask for more funds – and even to hand back the check should Congress offer more money than the deal prescribes.
The MoU guarantees $5 billion in US aid for Israel’s missile defense over the next decade. Israel may ask for additional emergency funding only in the case of war, Jacob Nagel, Israel’s acting national security adviser, said during the signing ceremony in September.
The figure is large, but broken down into annual sums amounts to less than what Israel received in recent years – a statistic not lost on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is considering whether or not to lobby for more aid ahead of its annual policy conference in Washington next week.
Some Republican leaders in Congress say they are prepared to write in more funding for Israel’s missile defense than the MoU allows – and believe that President Donald Trump would sign off on it. But Jerusalem may treat the agreement as inviolable: Some Israeli officials fear that breaking the framework and increasing aid this year would open the door to future aid decreases.
Immediately following Trump’s inauguration, a new White House website floated his intention to fund “state of the art” missile defense programs to counter threats from Iran and North Korea. He has since proposed the largest defense budget increase in modern American history and began campaigning against sequestration cuts that have crippled growth at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis suggested the US “put together a combined air missile defense capability for our Gulf allies” in order to deter Iran’s increasingly sophisticated program. He advocated for increased investments in the Pentagon’s ICBM and missile defense programs.
The Trump administration is actively exploring ways to foster Israeli-Arab cooperation against Iran, which it hopes will blossom into greater normalization of ties.
At the same hearing, Mattis was asked what the new administration could do to improve its strategy on the Korean Peninsula.
“It is going to take an international effort,” Mattis said.
While Israel’s role in this research is not yet clear, Liberman’s decision to incorporate North Korea into his discussions in Washington might signal Israel’s willingness to expand the scope of its missile defense work to incorporate the needs of America’s allies in Asia.
“It’s entirely unclear where we’re going yet, but the Israelis are looking to rebuild ties – and I’d think they would be very willing to demonstrate their value to the Pentagon,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “As this relationship is starting off, I think the Israelis would be remiss if they didn’t raise North Korea as part of their threat matrix, given what the US is looking at.”