Officials in Washington on Wednesday sought to play down the fact that the White House had threatened to veto a Congressional proposal to increase funding for Israeli missile defense.
According to Haaretz, the officials stressed that the threat does not reflect a desire to cut aid to Israel, but merely a disagreement over the proper legislative vehicle for allocating this aid.
On Tuesday, the White House released a statement saying it “opposes the addition of $455 million above the FY 2017 Budget request for Israeli missile defense procurement and cooperative development programs.”
Senior administration officials explained Wednesday that the White House believes the missile defense funding should be included in the 10-year military aid agreement the two countries are now negotiating, and not in the 2017 defense budget, as Congress proposed.
This would also be better for Israel, they argued, because it would obviate the need for Congress and the administration to renegotiate the sum every year.
“We are prepared to make an unprecedented multi-year missile defense commitment as part of a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel on military assistance,” one senior White House official said, according to Haaretz.
“This commitment, which would amount to billions of dollars over 10 years, would be the first long-term pledge on missile defense support to Israel, affording Israel robust support for its missile defense, as well as predictability and facilitating long-term planning for missile defense initiatives.”
The officials also said the sum the administration had proposed for Israeli missile defense in the 2017 budget was adequate. Moreover, they added, the extra $455 million that Congress was seeking to add would force the United States to cut back significantly on its own missile defense development.
The money for Israeli missile defense comes from the same budget as the money for American missile defense, one explained. Therefore, increased funding for Israel would reduce the amount of money available for developing “critical” American missile defense systems, at a time when the missile threat against the U.S. from North Korea is only growing, he said, according to Haaretz.
The officials also said that if necessary, the administration would give Israel special emergency grants for missile defense on top of the regular funding, something it has done several times over the past few years. For instance, they noted, during the 2014 war in Gaza, Washington gave Israel an extra $225 million to purchase additional Iron Dome batteries.
The current defense agreement between Israel and the United States remains in force until 2018, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been urged to accept President Barack Obama’s 10-year military aid package which reportedly includes a total of $145.8 million for Israeli missile defense programs, a sharp drop in financial support.
A total of $3 billion in defense aid is given annually, but Netanyahu has asked for an increase to $5 billion annually, in light of the greater need for security due to the growing Iranian threat after the nuclear deal.
Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu slammed what he said were "misleading" reports over alleged cuts in American military aid to Israel, accusing those circulating the reports of attempting to sow panic.
"In the wake of numerous misleading reports, the Prime Minister's bureau would like to clarify there has been no cut in American assistance," a statement from the Prime Minister's Office read.
Acting National Security Council chief Yaakov Nagel was interviewed on Army Radio on Wednesday where he criticized what he called the "ridiculous" reports circulating in the Israeli media. Nagel explained that the military aid Israel currently receives is not up for discussion, but rather the option of a new, separate "anchored" aid package for missile defense systems.
Meanwhile, at a briefing in Washington last Friday for representatives of Jewish organizations, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that negotiations on the aid agreement with Israel have effectively ended. Two sources who attended the briefing told Haaretz that Blinken said the deal the U.S. is offering won’t change any further and the ball is now in Netanyahu’s court.
“Blinken said the Israeli prime minister is the one who has to decide whether to sign the agreement now or to wait for the next president,” one said.
In an address to the Herzliya Conference Wednesday night, Blinken hinted that the U.S. is waiting for Israel's response on the military aid deal. Washington, he told the conference, is ready to sign a memorandum of understanding with Israel that would grant it a larger military aid package than American gives any other country in the world and would be in force until 2029.