Officials fear US may cut military aid to Israel

Capitol Hill downplays concerns Obama will use funds to pressure Israel over illegal settlements.

Settlement building 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Settlement building 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The Defense Ministry is concerned that US President Barack Obama will cut military aid to Israel in an effort to pressure the new government to take action against illegal outposts and settlement construction, defense officials said. The officials spoke with The Jerusalem Post ahead of both a visit later this week by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and the Obama administration's anticipated release of the fiscal 2010 budget, which includes funding for foreign aid. "Mitchell is a known opponent of the outposts and the settlements," a senior defense official said. "The Americans may try to use the military aid as a way of pressuring the new government into dismantling outposts and freezing construction in settlements." Already last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak held consultations on the matter. But the Defense Ministry's jitters regarding US military aid were not shared by the Prime Minister's Office or the Finance Ministry. Officials in the latter two offices said they had not heard of any plans to cut American military aid to Israel, which was set out in a 2007 memorandum of understanding signed by both countries. It promised that Israel would receive $30 billion over a 10-year period. This year, Israel received $2.5b. of that sum, and it is expected to receive $2.7b. in 2010. The amount is scheduled to increase until it levels out at $3.1b. in 2013. It is limited to that sum for the remainder of the agreement. Seventy-five percent are expected to go toward purchasing US-made weapons, with the bulk of the remainder going to domestic defense purchases. At the time of the signing, president George W. Bush assured Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the US would help Israel retain its qualitative edge in the Middle East. According to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, nothing has changed on that score with the Obama administration. The US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding on military assistance reflects the "unshakeable commitment of the United States to Israel's security," said embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle. Consistent with such a commitment, the US government has no intention of changing the terms of the agreement, he added. Still, the fact that the pledged sum of money is sent to Israel only after approval by the House of Representatives and the Senate has raised some concern in the Defense Ministry, even though both bodies have a strong record of military support for Israel. At issue is a line in the memorandum stating that "both sides acknowledge that these funding levels assume continuation of adequate funding levels for the US foreign assistance overall and are subject to the appropriation and availability of funds for these purposes." Defense officials speculated that if the US decided to cut the funding, it would not say it was doing so due to outposts and settlements, but would cite the global financial crisis as the reason. However, a Finance Ministry official said he had not heard anything to indicate that the aid would be cut as a result of Israel's settlement activity. "Everyone is afraid of cuts, because there is a new administration in Washington," he said. According to the Finance Ministry official, Israel has not heard of any anticipated cuts. According to sources on Capitol Hill, even if a there were a few lone politicians who called for cuts in military aid to protest settlement construction, it wouldn't stop the approval of foreign aid for Israel. But military aid cuts are not the only issue that concerns the Defense Ministry ahead of Mitchell's visit. Concern is also growing in the IDF's Central Command that America will push Israel to begin transferring security over West Bank towns to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian security forces, trained by Jordan and US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, are already deployed in Jenin and Hebron. According to Israeli officials, these forces played a key role in preventing terror attacks in the West Bank during last month's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Additional PA forces are also deployed in Bethlehem, Tulkarm and Nablus. While the IDF is satisfied with the PA forces, it is concerned that Mitchell and Dayton will use the success to push for an expansion of the deployment, including the transfer of security to the PA. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has been pushing the Americans for further Israeli concessions, sources in the IDF said. In recent talks, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni told Dayton that in principle he supported the transfer of security to the PA, but that the process needed to be gradual. Two weeks ago, Shamni signed an order permitting the opening of 12 new Palestinian police stations in Area B, which is under Israeli security control. "The PA forces are doing an effective job in enforcing law and order, but they are not yet completely ready to combat terrorism," one military source said. The officials noted that Mitchell was likely to open a permanent office in Jerusalem.