Paul: cuts to Israel assistance would not be ‘immediate, dramatic’


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he does not favor immediate cuts to defense assistance to Israel and favors intelligence and development cooperation, but he believes that Israel would ultimately benefit from economic independence from the United States.

Paul, in a conference call Wednesday marking his return from a week-long visit to Israel, said his first priority in targeting foreign assistance would be those nations where people “burn the American flag and say death to America.”

Israel, he said, has been a “great friend” to the United States.

“Something I would be in favor of would not be immediate, dramatic or draconian, it would be evolving,” he said of his favoring cuts in assistance to Israel. “I'm for an independent, strong Israel that is not a client state and not a reliant state.”

Asked particularly about missile defense cooperation, he said there was a “great argument” for such programs and he believes that American cities should have missile defense infrastructure.

Of Iron Dome, the Israeli anti-missile system that Israel says repelled 80 percent of rocket attacks during the recent Gaza War, Rand said: “There's a great argument for the Iron Dome,” although he would want to examine “exactly how it is funded.”

Currently, Iron Dome is funded by hundreds of millions of dollars in grants on top of the $3 billion Israel receives annually in defense assistance from the United States. 

Paul said he understands how his calls for reducing aid to Israel make him an outlier among fellow senators, but that he believes his position is more pro-Israel than theirs.

Paul also said it was “presumptuous” of American politicians to dictate to Israel where it should build, and that he leans toward recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, although he understands arguments that such recognition could be “provocative.”

Paul, who met with Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his trip, said he was concerned about defense assistance to Egypt, in part because its president, Mohamed Morsi, has in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, but also because such sales fuel an arms race with Israel.

Paul has gently distanced himself from the positions of his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a perennial presidential candidate who also has favored cutting assistance to Israel, but who has often cast those arguments as criticism of Israeli policies. The younger Paul is seen as likely to bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Livni turned away from Iron Dome battery by military


Tzipi Livni was turned away from an Iron Dome anti-missile battery where she had planned to hold a campaign photo opportunity.

Livni, head of the new center-left party Hatnua, and Amir Peretz, who is second on her party list, were prevented from holding a photo op at the Ashkelon site on Tuesday for failing to cleared the visit with Israel's military and because military officials feared that the photos would give away the battery's exact position, Haaretz reported.

The party wanted to use the battery as a backdrop since Peretz had pushed for the development of Iron Dome when he served as defense minister in 2006 and 2007.

Congress wants to increase allocations to Israeli missile programs


Congress wants to at least double the Obama administration's funding request for anti-missile cooperation with Israel.

Obama asked Congress for $99.9 million in 2013 for “Israel co-operative programs,” which include programs like the long-range Arrow anti-missile system and the short-range David's Sling.

The U.S. House of Representatives version of the National Defense Authorization Act, passed earlier this year, recommended adding $168 million to that request, and the Senate recommended adding $100 million in its own National Defense Authorization Act, passed last week.

A letter sent Wednesday by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to the top senators on the Armed Services Committee urges them to agree to the higher House increase in the bicameral conference talks that finalize the act.

“As witnessed by the recent attacks on Israel from Gaza, the continued joint efforts of the United States and Israel in missile defense systems is critical to protecting this close U.S. ally and American interests in that region,” the letter said. “The technology yields results that both of our militaries will utilize in our respective defense systems. U.S. funding is fully matched by that of Israel.”

The bill separately authorizes new funding for Iron Dome, the short-range anti-missile system Israel used to deflect most rockets launched from the Gaza Strip during its recent conflict with Hamas.

The Senate recommends $420 million for Iron Dome, double the $210 million the Obama administration is expected to request, and the House recommended $680 million. Those amounts also will be reconciled in conference committee.

Funding for cooperation on missile programs like Arrow and David's Sling is not considered assistance because it benefits U.S. as well as Israeli defense development. Iron Dome, however, is proprietary to Israel.

All these monies would be in addition to the $3.1 billion Israel receives annually in defense assistance.

House subcommittee set to OK $1 billion for Israel anti-missile programs


The U.S. House of Representatives defense appropriations subcommittee is set to approve nearly $1 billion for Israeli and joint Israeli-U.S. missile defense programs.

“This funding level is the highest ever appropriated in a single year for these life-saving programs,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), a member of the committee, said in a statement.

Some $680 million of the $947 million set to be approved Tuesday in a session of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will go to the Iron Dome short-range anti-missile system, a result of legislation initiated by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), respectively the chairwoman and senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The bill was spurred by Iron Dome’s success in repelling a barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip earlier this year and the Obama administration’s readiness to consider further funds for the project.

The remaining $269 million will go to the short-range David’s Sling and long-range Arrow anti-missile programs, representing a hike from the $100 million proposed earlier this year in the Obama administration’s budget.

Those programs are joint U.S.-Israel projects, while Iron Dome is an Israeli project, although congressional appropriators have expressed interest in obtaining U.S. proprietary rights to Iron Dome.

Delay of U.S.-Israel anti-missile exercise fuels speculation


The decision by Israel and the United States to delay a massive joint anti-missile exercise set off a frenzy of speculation as to what the move says about relations between the two allies amid mounting tensions with Iran.

U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to JTA over the weekend that they had delayed until the second half of 2012 what was to have been the largest-ever joint anti-missile exercise, Austere Challenge 12.

Speaking off the record, officials in the United States and Israel confirmed published reports that Iran factored into the decision. But just how Iran factored in they would not say, and they insisted that the overriding factor had to do with preparedness for the exercise and Israeli budgetary concerns.

A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, said in an e-mail that the exercise was canceled for routine reasons of wanting “optimum participation” by both sides.

“It is not at all uncommon for routine exercises to be postponed,” Kirby said. “There were a variety of factors at play in this case, but in general, leaders from both sides believe that optimum participation by all units is best achieved later in the year. We remain dedicated to this exercise and naturally want it to be as robust and as productive as it can be.”

On background, Israeli and U.S. officials said that “optimum conditions” had to do with defense spending, now the subject of a fierce debate in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure, after a summer of protests, to increase social safety net spending.

In October, Netanyahu said he would cut defense spending to fund social spending, but last week he reversed course, hiking defense allocations by $700 million.

The fluctuating positions have created uncertainty in Israel’s defense establishment, and U.S. officials confirmed an account originally reported by Laura Rozen of Yahoo News that it was Defense Minister Ehud Barak who requested the delay in December.

Critics of the Obama administration were not buying it, insisting that the delay revealed a fissure between President Obama and Netanyahu over how to handle Iran. Some suggested that the Obama administration feared the joint exercise would further ratchet up tensions with Iran.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the announcement fit into a pattern of what she depicted as the Obama administration’s overly cautious approach to Iran’s aggression, including its threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, which would cut off much of the West’s oil supply.

“Now they cancel these exercises with the Israelis and make the Israelis say they asked for it,” she said. “For the Iranians there is only one message here. That is: ‘Our tactics are working!’ ”

One Israeli report, on the country’s Channel 2, quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying that it was the U.S. that requested the postponement, although U.S. officials and other Israelis have pushed back, insisting that it was Israel that made the request.

Pentagon officials reached out to journalists Tuesday to reinforce their claim that it was Israel, not the United States, that requested the delay. According to an unnamed senior U.S. defense official cited by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barak requested to cancel the exercise because he feared the Israeli military lacked the resources to carry it out effectively.

The official said that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta objected, fearing that it would send Iran a signal that Israel and the United States were wavering.

“Panetta’s initial reaction was, ‘I don’t want to take this off the calendar,’ ” Goldberg quoted the official as saying. Panetta, the official said, was unwilling to cancel the exercise but agreed to a postponement.

Still, speculation regarding the exercise’s postponement reflects worries over whether the United States and Israel are on the same page when it comes to Iran.

There have been reports that Obama is pressing Netanyahu not to strike Iran—or at least to notify the United States in advance of such a strike. More recently, the U.S. condemned last week’s assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, a killing that many commentators suggest was carried out by the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency.

One theory circulating in the wake of the cancellation of the postponement of the anti-missile exercises is that Israel may be retreating from close defense cooperation, in part because of the U.S. pressure to coordinate on Iran.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. joint military chiefs of staff, is due to arrive in Israel on Thursday and is expected to again press Israel not to strike Iran.

Eitan Barak, an assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggested that Israel’s refusal to commit to notifying the U.S. in advance of any military plans “could be an exercise to employ pressure on the United States to urge it to act against Iran.”

He said that Israel has in the past ratcheted up its defensive posture as a means of pressuring the United States and the West to confront a regional threat. He noted that during the first Gulf War, in 1991, Israel pulled its missiles out of their silos after suffering a barrage of Iraqi Scud missiles. Israel was signaling impatience with the failure of allied forces to take out Scud missile launchers in western Iraq.

“Once the U.S. satellites detected the missiles, the United States took Israel seriously” and started hitting western Iraqi targets, the Hebrew University’s Barak said. “It was a clear signal, if you don’t do something, we will.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst who lives in Israel, said the announcement of the decision to delay the anti-missile exercise could as easily be spun as a tale of closer Israel-U.S. cooperation.

“The preference here is for a negotiated settlement,” Javedanfar said. “Nobody in Israel wants Iran to havea nuclear bomb—this is one of the few nonpartisan issues—but we are also aware that the war with Iran could have far-reaching consequences, including our relationship with the United States.”

The decision to postpone a robust U.S.-Israel show of strength could be tied to signals that Iran is softening its position on negotiations over increasing the transparency of its nuclear program, he suggested. Western nations believe the program is aimed at building a bomb, while Iran insists it is peaceful.

Iran has invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit its facilities later this month, a key U.S. demand, and the Obama administration reportedly is considering a Turkish offer to broker new talks on making transparent Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

“The Israeli way of making Khameini sit with Obama is to make it clear all options are on the table,” Javedanfar said, referring to the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. “The idea is to get Khameini to return to the table with a serious offer.”