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September 28, 2016 1:37 pm

How Obama’s New Trade Deal Could Weaken Israel

avatar by Dan Pollack and Josh London

Barack Obama. Photo: Screenshot.

Barack Obama. Photo: Screenshot.

The recent signing of the new 10-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the US and Israel on defense aid is less of an accomplishment than the fanfare around it might suggest.

In the MOU, which was signed on September 14, the US pledged $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next ten years; Israel promised to no longer seek additional funds from Congress, and to reject any additional funding for the next two years. Finally, current provisions that allow Israel to spend one quarter of the aid by buying from companies in its own domestic defense industry — rather than having to spend all of it in the US — will be phased out.

Although this MOU will bring modest monetary gains to Israel, it sadly reflects a subtle diminution in the US-Israel relationship.

Critics of the deal insist that Israel should have been given more money. To begin with, giving military aid to Israel is a very popular and strongly bipartisan cause in both Houses of Congress. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a leading pro-Israel critic of this deal, points out that he is going to introduce a bill to provide an additional $1.5 billion to Israel for additional missile defense needs. Under this MOU, however, Israel is obligated to not accept the additional money; this will probably translate to fewer Iranian missiles intercepted if Israel has to defend against an attack by Hezbollah.

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No one can know what the future holds, but in the absence of this MOU, Congress would almost certainly still give Israel US military assistance at levels equivalent to or higher than what President Obama just agreed to. Since an MOU has no formal status, future presidents are not actually bound by them. Recall the 2004 letter from President Bush to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon rejecting the 1949 Armistice lines as the basis for determining a future Palestinian Arab state — a letter that also recognized the “new realities on the ground,” including the major Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Barack Obama, who found this “understanding” inconvenient for his own policies, simply determined that it did not apply, and would be ignored. The more binding aspects of this current MOU, however, are the voluntary concessions Obama induced Israel to make. These will result in greatly reduced Israeli flexibility in working with Congressional allies to address rapidly emerging threats, or to seek additional funding.

While this MOU is an increase over the previous MOU, it is a relatively modest increase. Under the previous accord, the US gave Israel $3.1 billion annually in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) assistance —  but all the missile defense funding was given separately and was never counted as part of the MOU total. So the current MOU deal of $3.8 billion in annual aid is actually just $3.3 billion in FMF plus $500 million in missile defense funding, which is now being included in the total MOU package.

Incorporating missile defense funding in the MOU is not merely an accounting trick to make the total look more generous. President Obama is also trying to limit the role of Congress in US-Israel policy, and he has potentially exacerbated the growing partisan divide over Israel. Since 2009, appropriating money for Iron Dome and related Israeli missile defense systems has become the primary bipartisan arena for Congressional pro-Israel activity, and the one area where Democrats could safely break with the Obama Administration. Taking this power away from Congress effectively removes the only remaining bipartisan center of support for Israel’s security in the Legislative Brnach. It is likely not a coincidence that this has been an explicit goal of J Street and other opponents of pro-Israel Congressional activity.

There are, of course, also some real benefits to Israel from finalizing this MOU. For example, it surely simplifies planning for the Israeli Ministry of Defense bureaucrats. Likewise the regional and domestic benefits to Israel of announcing further evidence of its ongoing close relationship to the US are undisputed — but the timing of the announcement is puzzling to nearly every observer. The deal could have been finalized anytime in the next year. It is almost certain that either Secretary Clinton or Mr. Trump would have embraced a similar deal, and probably without requiring serious concessions.

Once our presidential election takes place, however, there has been wide speculation that France is going to introduce a Security Council Resolution declaring all Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria illegal — which is not the current view in international law. In addition, they may propose a Security Council Resolution attempting to demarcate the borders of a proposed future Palestinian Arab state, in contravention of existing protocols and agreements between Israel and the PLO. The US has nearly always pledged to veto resolutions of this type, but the danger this November is that the US may abstain on such resolutions, thus allowing them to pass. If this happens, the White House will then use the supposed generosity of the MOU as a shield from criticism. This week, 88 Senators signed a letter asking the President to veto any “one-sided” anti-Israel UN resolutions. Speaking for the ZOA, there will be no excuse for the Obama Administration betraying Israel at the UN, and the generosity of the MOU will not figure in that debate.

According to President Obama, this new MOU “is just the most recent reflection” of his “steadfast commitment to the security of the State of Israel.” The President’s actual record on this commitment is atrocious, and it appears his parting act will be to slightly weaken the US-Israel relationship. By continuing the charade of conspicuously rewarding Israel while simultaneously diminishing the Jewish State’s position, this MOU well reflects Obama’s particularly troubling approach to Israel’s security.

Dan Pollack and Josh London are co-chairs of the ZOA Department of Government Relations.

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