Israel – presidential symbolism vs. concrete security measures

In fact, when you look back at the last decade and a half, Iron Dome remains one of the singular accomplishments ensuring Israel’s security.

August 17, 2019 19:09
4 minute read.
Israel – presidential symbolism vs. concrete security measures

THE IRON Dome system, one of many cutting edge aspects of Israel’s defense sector that has received support from the US.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

President Donald Trump and his allies have sought mightily to paint the Democratic Party’s Middle East policy as being dictated by two first-term members of Congress, yet what we saw over the past few weeks proves him wrong. First, as one of its last actions before leaving Washington, Congress overwhelmingly passed an anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) resolution, with only 17 no votes. Second, more than 70 members of the House of Representatives visited Israel this week, many of whom had only just been elected for the first time.

Those two facts alone are a testament to the broad, bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship. As a representation of that, the image that sticks out most from this trip was taken in front of an Iron Dome battery, Israel’s anti-rocket system which has saved countless lives – Palestinian and Israeli. The entire delegation appears to have posed together.

In fact, when you look back at the last decade and a half, Iron Dome remains one of the singular accomplishments ensuring Israel’s security and giving its leaders the strategic space to act on their own timeline.

As an engineering feat, the system behind Iron Dome is astounding. The United States Department of Defense officials and many of their Israeli counterparts originally doubted that the technology was even possible. They openly wondered about how such a system would avoid scattering debris which could instead increase civilian casualties or whether firing too many interceptors would be financially ruinous. Today, those doubts have been laid to rest and the Iron Dome remains a cornerstone of Israel’s defense – recently even purchased by the US Army.

The groundwork for the Iron Dome was laid during the George W. Bush years, but only on Israel’s end. As Israeli officials pressed their American counterparts for the necessary funds and support, president Bush and his advisers remained frosty at best. They were dubious about its feasibility and preferred investment in an American defense system.

Not until president Barack Obama – and other Democrats like my former boss, Rep. Steve Rothman, who served as a member of the House Appropriation Defense Subcommittee – reversed the stance of the previous administration, did the Iron Dome system receive its due.

The investment in the technology has since saved countless lives, not just by shielding civilians but also by limiting the need for preemptive strikes.

The Iron Dome is one of the most significant policy achievements in the history of the US-Israel relationship. President Harry Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1948, president Lyndon Johnson’s aid during the Six Day War in 1967, president Richard Nixon’s support during the Yom Kippur War six years later, and president  Jimmy Carter’s brokering of Israeli-Egyptian peace at Camp David in 1979 all loom large in the history books.

BUT WHEN it comes to concrete measures to bolster Israel’s security, president Obama’s early support of Iron Dome ranks as a top-10 accomplishment over the past seven decades. In the last three or four administrations, the only successful presidential actions that come close are the two memorandums of understanding between our nations. The first was signed by president Bush in 2007, and the second signed by president Obama in 2016, the latter totaling an unprecedented $38 billion over the following 10 years. 

Of course, reasonable people in the pro-Israel community can disagree about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between the P5+1 countries and Iran. The American Jewish and pro-Israel community were divided on the implementation of the Iran deal, as was the Israeli defense establishment. And some in the pro-Israel community were against the Obama administration’s approach to Israeli settlements, even though, in substance, his approach was largely similar to that of president George W. Bush. However, when it came to security, defense and intelligence cooperation, the US-Israel partnership was unprecedented under our previous president.

President Obama’s policy-driven approach to Israel and national security can be contrasted with President Trump’s largely rhetorical support and his mostly symbolic moves that don’t directly impact Israel’s security. As President Trump regularly touts, his signature pro-Israel achievements are recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and tearing up the JCPOA.

While we still don’t know the full implications of withdrawing from the Iran deal, President Trump’s move was greeted with concern among some Israeli leaders and even among those who voted against the Iran deal in Congress.

On other issues, Trump’s legacy when it comes strengthening Israel’s security is equally uncertain. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the American Embassy brought sustained cheers from the Right and the center-right but did little to improve Israel’s security. Nor did officially recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, of which Israel already had de facto control. Both were highly symbolic moves, even if many pro-Israel Democrats like me agreed with them in substance, albeit not in timing.

We should think seriously about how these stack up against true security strengthening measures like Iron Dome and the rest of the US-Israel missile defense cooperation and the two consecutive MoUs worth $68 billion.

This is all par for the course for Donald Trump’s presidency. Unlike his predecessor, Trump has never been big on the actual real-life implications of his policies or actions.

It’s important for the pro-Israel community to understand the difference between substance and rhetoric. Knowing the difference will help us better evaluate history – and make better judgments in the future.

The writer is a former senior aide on the Hill, including having served as Middle East adviser to former Congressman Steve Rothman, a veteran appropriator who led the effort on supporting Iron Dome in Congress. He is currently managing partner at Bluelight Strategies in Washington.

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