Who tried to block US funding for Iron Dome? - opinion

This is the quintessential difference between J Street and AIPAC.

 Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets fired from the Gaza Strip to Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022.  (photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets fired from the Gaza Strip to Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The May 2021 Gaza war put a strain on Israel’s Iron Dome system. Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had fired 4,300 rockets. More than 1,500 flew toward heavily populated areas in Israel, and the Iron Dome’s Tamir missiles knocked down more than 90 percent of them. Within days, experts from Israel, the US administration, and Congress were discussing restocking the Tamir interceptors. The price tag: $1 billion.

And by mid-June 2021, opposition to replenishing the essential defensive materiel to Israel was emerging in Washington among a squad of members of Congress, anti-Israel progressive groups, and some think tanks of the so-called “deep state.” 

Who led the charge against the Iron Dome? None other than the purportedly “pro-Israel” J Street and Dylan Williams, the organization’s chief lobbyist and senior vice president for policy and strategy.

On the other side of the political spectrum, AIPAC was all in, lobbying both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. In September 2021, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 420-9, to provide $1 billion to restock Israel’s Iron Dome missiles.

During the hour-long debate, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, “Passage of this bill reflects the great unity in Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, for Israel. Security assistance to Israel is vital because Israel’s security is an imperative for America’s security.” In recent American primary races, which saw AIPAC’s PAC involvement for the first time, support for the Iron Dome became a litmus test for voters.

 An Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as a rocket is launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, at the sky near the Israel-Gaza border August 7, 2022. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) An Iron Dome anti-missile system fires an interceptor missile as a rocket is launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, at the sky near the Israel-Gaza border August 7, 2022. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

In the last 15 months, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired thousands of deadly rockets and mortars at Israel’s civilian population. The range of some of the rockets extended to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and their payloads were getting bigger. While hundreds of the enemy rockets fell short and killed dozens of civilians in Gaza, and many fell in empty fields in Israel, the bulk of the barrages headed toward Israeli towns and cities. 

Time and time again

Time and again, the Iron Dome missile batteries swatted down the flying bombs, even when fired in volleys in an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s defenses. In the latest round of fighting, the Iron Dome destroyed 95 percent of the rockets.

Consider the consequences if the Iron Dome radars were unavailable or ran out of Tamir interceptors: hundreds of Israeli casualties and billions of dollars of damage. Without the defensive umbrella, the IDF would have been forced to aggressively search out Gaza rocket launchers and the militias operating them. The bombing campaign would have been savage, relatively inaccurate artillery would have destroyed Gaza neighborhoods, and ground forces and tanks would have rolled into Gazan cities.

Simply put, the Iron Dome saved Palestinian lives.

J STREET, HOWEVER, opposed the emergency appropriation. In a June 17, 2021 essay, less than a month after the savage Gaza war, Williams asked “whether a wealthy country like Israel actually needs an additional $1 billion from a partner [the United States] already struggling to meet the myriad needs of its own citizens in difficult times to pay for it.” 

Israel’s per capita GDP “was higher than each of France, Japan and the UK,” Williams continued. The sum was twice as large as US funding for NATO, the “entire Peace Corps,” and three times larger than the “Veterans Administration suicide prevention programs.”

Writing in Responsible Statecraft, the Quincy Institute’s online magazine, Williams argued that American funding should be directed at addressing “the root causes of the cycle of violence [and] rebuild[ing] Gaza’s infrastructure and economy in a way that will empower ordinary Palestinians in the territory rather than Hamas.” 

The lobbyist repeated J Street’s favorite mantra that Israel was to blame for the violence: “A growing number of voters and lawmakers wonder why Israel needs additional US money when it is spending vast sums building illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.” Williams argued, “The Biden administration and congressional majorities must break this unconstructive cycle and give due priority in US funding to countering the deepening occupation and other catalysts for unending conflict.”

The J Street official argued that funding for the Iron Dome should not be expanded because the US had already paid for it in its 2016 10-year Memorandum of Understanding:

“The figure of $3.8 billion per year was not arbitrarily chosen. It was carefully calculated by the Obama administration after a thorough assessment of Israel’s real defense needs… As a result of that deliberative, fact-based process, the MoU now in effect contains a specific pledge of $500 million every year for missile defense alone, included specifically in response to tragically frequent outbreaks of violence and rocket attacks.” 

Note: the Quincy Institute in Washington is headed by Trita Parsi, its executive vice president. Parsi founded and led the Washington-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC), widely seen as a supporter of the Iranian government. In that capacity, Parsi co-authored articles with J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in opposition to US sanctions on the Islamic State. Quincy Institute’s current director of communications served as J Street’s vice president of public engagement.

OSTENSIBLY, MEMBERS of Congress who opposed the resupply of missiles for the Iron Dome in the September 2021 vote relied on Williams’s June 2021 article for talking points. After the vote, Williams took to Twitter to slam the Anti-Defamation League for criticizing the few members of Congress who opposed the funding (who he had encouraged initially). In a lengthy thread (erased this week), the J Street official began, “Those of us who support (sic) the additional $1 billion in Iron Dome aid to Israel...”

Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) said: “We shouldn’t be sending an additional $1b to an apartheid state’s military. Especially not when we are failing to adequately invest in the health care, housing, education, and other social services our communities need.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) said: “This is not the way Congress should consider an unprecedented $1b in funding above and beyond what’s called for in the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding with Israel. If we can’t move with urgency on critical domestic spending in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, there’s no reason we should move this way on military spending.”

As this article was in preparation, J Street’s Williams erased his Tweets related to the Iron Dome. There are remnants still left on Google, including this: “Hamas has glorified fireworks, though still dangerous. Israel has 21st-century weapons paid for by us.”

Several years ago, J Street’s Ben Ami swore that the organization received no funds from George Soros. When J Street’s tax forms were leaked, they showed how significant the Soros contributions were. Ben Ami was forced to apologize. Today, an apology by Williams will not suffice. His resignation would be appropriate – a casualty of the Iron Dome that he opposed.

The writer worked for AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem, and later served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is the author of American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs and the forthcoming Secrets of World War I in the Holy Land.