The White House missile aid objection: An MOU negotiating tactic?

Failing to object to Congress’s quadrupling of the president’s missile defense budget – which was proposed at $147m. – would have had a direct consequence on the MOU talks.

June 20, 2016 01:05
4 minute read.
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An "Arrow 3" ballistic missile interceptor is seen during its test launch near Ashdod. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON – Israelis reacted with surprise last week when the White House officially objected to a congressional increase in missile defense aid to the Jewish state. Each year for over a decade, a bipartisan consensus in Congress has added to the president’s budget proposal without any pushback. So what has changed, and why now?

The answer may lie in the White House’s reasoning behind the objection, offered to The Jerusalem Post by senior administration officials: Congress’ $455 million request, they explained, amounts to “the largest such nonemergency increase ever,” and if funded “would consume a growing share of a shrinking US Missile Defense Agency’s budget.”

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“Given that funding for Israeli missile defense comes out of the same account as US domestic missile defense programs,” one official continued, “additional support for Israel means fewer resources are available for critical US programs.”

But that has always been the case. Missile defense aid for Israel – which has increased every year to reflect the growing size and efficiency of Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s rocket stockpiles – has always been sourced from the US’s own missile defense program.

And while US officials cite an increasingly potent ballistic threat to the homeland from North Korea, the technological development of Pyongyang’s program is far behind those of existing hostile ballistic programs in Russia and Iran, against which the US has trained for years.

The relevant backdrop to this debate is critical talks between US and Israeli officials over a new decadelong Memorandum of Understanding, which will govern US defense aid to Israel until 2028. That negotiation is in its “final stages,” according to the acting head of Israel’s National Security Council.

The remaining negotiation is not over defining Israel’s security needs, but over concrete dollar figures: Over how much funding Israel will be guaranteed each year.

And part of that calculation requires both sides to settle on an amount of missile defense aid to incorporate into the MOU – a figure that was not included in the previous MOU, left instead to be renegotiated every year by Congress into the National Defense Authorization Act.

On both the larger annual sum as well as the new, supplemental missile defense aid, Israel is naturally seeking the greatest increase it can possibly secure. Jerusalem is arguing that inflation as well as an increasingly complex threat environment since their last negotiation requires a substantial increase in total aid from $3 billion to $5b. a year – a figure that will finally incorporate what Israel says is an average annual $400 million increase it receives in missile defense aid.

But across the board and over several months of talks, the White House has consistently argued for lower figures due to, in the words of one senior White House official, “a particularly challenging [US] budget environment.”

That is at the core of the administration’s position – it is what has made the MOU the subject of a negotiation, and not simply the fulfillment of a pro forma request – and has been echoed by US Defense Department officials, who more than anyone else have grappled with the realities of budget sequestration and declining defense resources.

Budget sequestration imposes an automatic, across-the-board spending cut if Congress enacts annual appropriations legislation that exceeds certain caps.

The Obama administration says it will grant Israel the most generous defense package the US has ever offered any ally – but that it must take into account America’s fiscal challenges and its limited ability to fund discretionary spending programs.

It is a position that was echoed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, as well, when asked by the Post whether budget constraints would affect the defense negotiations – suggesting partisanship has little to do with it.

“I don’t know what the numbers are going to be – that’s between the administration and the Israeli government,” Ryan said in response over a breakfast in April, adding: “We have budget constraints like anybody else does.

“Our budget is constrained because we’re not dealing with the autopilot nature of our budget,” Ryan said. “We’re not dealing with mandatory spending. And because we’re not dealing with mandatory spending, we have shrinking fiscal space for discretionary spending. And this stuff is discretionary spending.”

As President Barack Obama prepares to close this MOU with Israel, his advisers may have used the administration’s public policy statement on the National Defense Authorization Act to drive home their private negotiating position: that budget constraints require the defense package be more conservative than Israel would like.

Failing to object to Congress’s quadrupling of the president’s missile defense budget – which was proposed at $147m. – would have had a direct consequence on the MOU talks, as it would have effectively been an administration concession that Israel needs hundreds of millions more than had previously been negotiated. And it would have undercut the administration’s position that its aid spending is under fiscal pressure, given the Pentagon’s own enormous needs.

Thus, the missile objection heard round Israel may not have been about Obama’s politics – it may have simply been the administration’s efforts to remain consistent in public and in private.

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