by Marsha B. Cohen
This month the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration had slowed the shipment of Hellfire missiles to Israel after it bombed a UN school in Gaza on Aug. 3 with the US-made weapon. The White House has insisted that weapons transfers to Israel have not been suspended or halted, and that the administration is only “taking extra care to look at these shipments.” Yet some analysts understood the unusual decision as a warning message to Tel Aviv about the use of disproportionate force. Whether or not that’s true, it’s no secret that the United States is Israel’s biggest source of military assistance, even if the White House has not been completely aware about the extent of that support.
Two years ago, Congress passed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act (P.L. 112-150), which reiterated, as a matter of policy, the US commitment “to help the Government of Israel preserve its qualitative military edge amid rapid and uncertain regional political transformation.” It expressed the non-binding “sense of Congress” favoring various possible avenues of cooperation: providing Excess Defense Articles to Israel; enhanced operational, intelligence, and political-military coordination; expediting the sale of specific weaponry including F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft, refueling tankers, and “bunker buster” bombs; as well as an US-Israel cooperative missile defense program and additional aid for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system.
Iron Dome: Approaching $1 billion—and Beyond
Iron Dome, a dual mission system built by Israeli defense contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which doubles as a very short range air defense system and an interceptor of incoming rockets, mortars and artillery, has received $720 million in American funding since the program’s inception in 2011. Israel currently has nine batteries, each costing about $100 million. The price tag for every Tamir missile fired by the Iron Dome system costs an estimated minimum of $50,000, with two missiles responding to every incoming rocket that is considered a threat to Israeli lives and property.
US support for Iron Dome will soon surpass $1 billion. In March, the Pentagon asked for $176 million for the program for Fiscal Year 2015, which begins Oct. 1, but the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee raised the Iron Dome appropriation to $351 million on July 15—more than half the $621.6 million it had appropriated for Israeli missile defense for the upcoming year. A week later, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a letter to Senate leaders and key committee chairpersons relaying the Israeli government’s request for an immediate $285 million of emergency allocation for Iron Dome. On Aug. 1—a Friday afternoon—the House (398-8) and Senate both approved adding an additional $285 million to Iron Dome’s funding, which was followed by President Obama’s signature the following Monday morning.
As of last week, according to Y-Net, Iron Dome reportedly had a 90% success rate during the first month of “Operation Protective Edge,” intercepting more than 600 rockets headed toward Israeli population centers from Gaza.
Autopilot Foreign Policy
After Israel’s bombing of the UN school in Gaza, and more than 2,000 civilian Palestinian deaths since the war began on July 8, the Obama administration apparently became aware that it was uninformed about, and had very little control over US military assistance to Israel. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 14 that President Obama had just discovered that the US military was authorizing and providing weapons shipments to Israel without his knowledge.
Unknown to many policy makers, Israel was moving on a separate track to replenish supplies of lethal munitions being used in Gaza and to expedite the approval of the Iron Dome funds on Capitol Hill.
On July 20, Israel’s defense ministry asked the US military for a range of munitions, including 120-mm mortar shells and 40-mm illuminating rounds, which were already stored at a pre-positioned weapons stockpile in Israel.
The request was approved through military channels three days later but not made public. Under the terms of the deal, the Israelis used US financing to pay for $3 million in tank rounds. No presidential approval or signoff by the secretary of state was required or sought, according to officials.
The White House then instituted a review process over armaments being shipped to Israel, instructing the Pentagon and the US military to hold a transfer of Hellfire missiles. According to Haaretz:
Against the backdrop of American displeasure over IDF tactics used in the Gaza fighting and the high number of civilian casualties caused by Israel’s massive use of artillery fire rather than more precise weapons, officials in the White House and the State Department are now demanding to review every Israeli request for American arms individually, rather than let them move relatively unchecked through a direct military-to-military channel, a fact that slows down the process.
One senior US official said the decision to tighten oversight and require the pre-approval of higher-ranking officials for shipments was intended to make clear to Israel that there is no “blank check” from Washington in regards to the US-made weapons that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uses in Gaza.
For its part, the State Department has denied reports that it has been kept in the dark about US-to-Israel weapons transfers. Last week spokeswoman Marie Harf disagreed with the WSJ‘s assessment that the executive branch had been blindsided, and attributed any apparent delay to “inter-agency process.”
The Times of Israel has since reported that the holdup of the Hellfire missiles has been resolved; the weapons will soon be on their way. Although the anonymous Israeli official who operated as a source for the story didn’t specify when the weapons would be arriving, according to Israel’s Channel 10 news, “the incident is behind us.”