The White House defended its objection to a proposal by Congress to quadruple next year’s US missile defense aid to Israel, with one senior administration official calling it “the largest such non-emergency increase ever” that bleeds America’s own missile defense budget.
However, the official told The Jerusalem Post that a new decade-long US defense package to Israel would include a long-term missile defense aid commitment – a new feature to the defense relationship that Israel had sought to secure over several months of negotiations.
“This commitment, which would amount to billions of dollars over 10 years, would be the first long-term pledge on missile defense support to Israel, affording Israel robust support for its missile defense, as well as predictability and facilitating long-term planning for missile defense initiatives,” the official said.
Talks over a new Memorandum of Understanding – set to replace an old, decade-long MoU expiring next year – have been under way between the Obama administration and the Israeli government over the past year. Israel’s acting head of the National Security Council, Ya’akov Nagel – who is leading the Israeli side in the negotiations over the MoU – told reporters in a phone call on Wednesday that the negotiations are in their final stages.
Nagel indicated that the outstanding issues in the talks include the precise annual sum Israel is to receive. Jerusalem is reportedly asking for up to $5 billion a year, due to the increased security challenges in the region, but this sum also includes supplemental funding for missile defense.
This was not included in the current MoU, and has in the past amounted to an average addition of some $400 million each year.
Also under negotiation is the amount of aid that can be transferred into shekels and spent in Israel. This sum currently stands at a little more than 26 percent, and the administration wants to reduce that percentage so that more money is spent in the US.
Nagel dismissed arguments voiced on Wednesday saying that if this sum were reduced it would harm Israel’s ability to develop its own weaponry. Nagel said that this money is spent on maintaining and upgrading the weapons systems purchased from the US.
The senior Obama administration official rejected the notion that its proposed missile defense aid for 2017, at $145 million without Congress’s increase, is insufficient.
“According to our experts, the levels submitted in the president’s fiscal year 2017 Budget Request provide robust support to the Israeli missile defense programs,” the senior official said.
Congress has proposed increasing US missile aid next year to Israel by an additional $455 million – a proposal which, “if funded, would consume a growing share of a shrinking US Missile Defense Agency’s budget,” the official said.
In a statement of administration policy released on Tuesday, the White House outlined its opposition to the increase. But it also declared opposition to a decrease in US missile defense funding in the amount of $324m-.
“Given that funding for Israeli missile defense comes out of the same account as 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,” the official continued.
The State Department also weighed in on the administration’s objection.
“We believe the request made in the president’s budget was the appropriate amount,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.
Nagel separated discussion over the supplemental aid for missile defense from the 10-year military assistance framework. He said that the negotiations over the MoU – which began shortly after Obama’s visit here in 2013, were then halted, and subsequently renewed some seven months ago – are nearing its conclusion.
“It is important to clarify that the discussion is about the size of the supplement to the aid to Israel for ballistic missile defense systems, and not about a cut,” he said. “The argument is about what will be the size of the supplement.”
Prior to Nagel’s briefing, as various opposition MKs were claiming Obama’s opposition to the size of the supplement was a result of poor relations between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the PMO issued a statement saying “there has been no cut in American assistance.
There is an internal debate between Congress and the White House on the size of the annual supplement to the missile defense program.”
According to the statement, Netanyahu “is working to anchor this supplement as part of the discussions on the assistance agreement for the next 10 years. Not only will security assistance for missile defense not be cut, it will be increased. The attempt to turn the dialogue with the US into a domestic Israeli political tool is improper; expressions of panic are not warranted.”
Defense Secretary Avigdor Liberman will be flying to Washington on Saturday to meet his US counterpart, Ashton Carter. This will be Liberman’s first trip to the US since taking up the post last month.
In a related development, US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken will lead a 19-person US inter-agency team on Thursday for its bi-annual strategic dialogue with Israel in Jerusalem. The Israeli side will be led by Nagel and Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold. The MoU is not on the agenda.
Blinken said at the Herzliya conference on Wednesday that the US would “continue to stand with Israel [at the UN], and against one-sided biased resolutions even if we are the only country in the world to do so.”
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