Steinitz: Israel is worried by US sequester

AIPAC to lobby for full aid and Iron Dome funding; Finance Minister: I hope we will not be hurt by US economic difficulties.

Yuval Steinitz 370 (photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Yuval Steinitz 370
(photo credit: Hadas Parush)
Israel is concerned that the broad US budget cuts that went into effect Friday evening will affect the economy, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
“The economic difficulties in the United States worry us.
I hope that we will not be hurt by them,” he said.
The across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, are expected to have negative repercussions for the US economy as a whole, and could potentially cut military aid to Israel and defense cooperation on programs such as the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defense systems. The threat of such wide-ranging cuts was originally intended to force a fiscal agreement between Democrats and Republicans, but failed to produce results.
“The international environment is very tough and it is required of us to act responsibly and boldly and to work hard to maintain all of Israel’s economy and Israel’s citizens,” Steinitz said, adding a plug for parties to drop resistance to joining the government in ongoing coalition talks to ensure a “strong, stable Israel.”
The exact implications of the cuts affecting Israel remain unknown, because the specifics of how each agency will cut its budget have yet to be spelled out. Globes estimated that the total could be as high as $729 million for the year, though sources on Capitol Hill estimated that military aid cuts would be about $85m.
smaller than in the Globes worst-case scenario.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which opened its annual policy conference on Sunday, will take to Capitol Hill Tuesday for a morning of lobbying, including a push to provide Israel with its full $3.1 billion in military aid for 2013 and 2014, as well as $211m. in additional funding for the Iron Dome missile-defense system. AIPAC will also promote legislation designating Israel a “major strategic ally,” a new alliance status that may help it keep its aid.
The lobbying agenda did not reference funding for joint missile defense programs, which the Pentagon will consider when divvying up its budget cuts. The other two lobbying agenda items will be devoted to legislation on Iran, one in the House, and one in the Senate.
Some critics worried that attempts to exempt Israel from painful budget cuts while the rest of the US was forced to absorb them would cause a political backlash.
“Traditionally AIPAC has been very cautious about not seeming to take actions that suggested putting Israel’s interests over America’s,” AIPAC critic M.J. Rosenberg wrote in the Huffington Post Friday.
“Demanding that Israel be exempt from cuts that virtually every American will feel seems so counterproductive as to almost be suicidal for the lobbying powerhouse.”
But Natan B. Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, says the chances for political backlash are limited.
“It’s certainly a danger.
There’s always a question of overreach, and the latest scuffle on [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel, which AIPAC didn’t participate in directly but right-wing Jewish groups did, shows that,” says Sachs.
Hagel was confirmed after a drawn-out political battle which included, among other things, pointed questions over his support for Israel.
However, the fact that Israel is a popular issue mitigates the chances of a backlash. “It’s very easy for members of congress to support Israel, not just because AIPAC is a powerful lobby, which it is, but because it’s a popular issue,” says Sachs. “The current administration and the Hill have been very forthcoming for Israel on security issues.”
Political outrage may be most acute among the rank and file of the Democratic Party, which is still riled from perceived Israeli support for Republicans in the last election, says Sachs.
Ambassador to the US Michael Oren tried to strike a balanced chord over the weekend, telling Globes, “Israel understands the difficult budget challenges the Americans are dealing with. We are prepared to bear our share of the burden, while trying to protect critical projects for Israel’s security and integrity, including Iron Dome.”
Asked if there was concern over negative political reactions, an AIPAC official doubled down, saying, “During a period of mounting threats to American interests in the region and to our critical ally, Israel, this is no time to reduce critical assistance which would only result in greater and graver costs.”
J Street, a left-leaning Israel advocacy group, also refused to specifically address the politics of the issue. “We oppose the sequester which will damage the US economy and potentially hurt national security and vital programs and also cause hardship to many vulnerable people,” a spokesman for the group said. “We are calling on lawmakers to reach a deal that that averts these negative consequences including any negative effects on Israel.”
Yet, keeping Israeli aid off the chopping block may also not be as difficult as expected.
“The sequester came into effect, but it may not last forever,” Sachs notes. “If you look at the way agencies are adapting, they’re taking short-term measures to weather the storm until Congress comes through with a new package, which may include cuts, but won’t be as blunt an instrument as the sequester.”
How long that will take remains to be seen.