Lost in the thicket of this presidential season is a growing controversy between the White House and Congress over which branch of government has final authority over the terms, conditions, and levels of foreign aid spending. At issue is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel that was signed at a State Department ceremony on Sept. 14.
Given the important national security and separation of powers questions raised by the controversy, and the implications for the next commander in chief, the public should demand that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton clearly express where they stand on this urgent matter of public policy.
The MOU provides Israel with a ten year U.S. security assistance package totaling $38 billion. In exchange, Jerusalem has agreed to a number of major concessions that the Obama administration hopes, going forward, will fundamentally transform the way in which the two countries have done business over the past forty years.
Perhaps the most significant of these concessions is the requirement that Israel and its supporters in Washington would cease all efforts to acquire congressional earmarks or funding increases outside the president’s annual budget request. In doing so, Israel has agreed to voluntarily relinquish its right to lobby congress on programs and foreign assistance funding levels that it believes are vital to its national interest. Even if congress were to act on its own volition and plus-up a program beneficial to Israel, then under the agreement Jerusalem is required to return any funds above the 2017 and 2018 levels set by the White House.
A review of the historical record reveals no other instance where an American ally, particularly one that has enjoyed a sixty year “special relationship” with the U.S., ever has been subject to this sort of draconian and undemocratic restriction.
Additionally, the MOU stipulates that at the end of six years, Israel is prohibited from spending any military aid it receives from the U.S. on locally produced goods and services. This practice, known as “offshore procurement,” has been a fixture of the U.S.-Israel aid relationship for decades.
It not only has helped Israel maintain a critically important defense industrial base, but it also has stimulated the development of new technologies that have benefited greatly the military readiness and sustainability of both countries’ combat forces. Current law provides that Israel may spend up to 26.3 percent of the $3.1 billion it currently receives in security assistance each year from the U.S. on offshore procurement.
The restructuring of Israel’s aid package is sure to prove a difficult adjustment for the country’s industrial sector, already struggling to keep up with the increasing sophistication and number of adversaries bent on the destruction of the Jewish State. Any suggestion that American support for Israel is weakening or becoming more restrictive invariably lessens the country’s deterrence posture.
It is a situation that could prove fatal for Israel if a nuclear armed Iran, in coordination with its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and terrorist allies in Syria, launched a sustained attack against the Jewish State. With a limited war reserve of smart munitions and essential spare parts, Israel is greatly dependent upon its domestic production to keep its forces supplied. This indigenous capability becomes even more critical should its lifeline to the West be interrupted or delayed for political and/or military reasons as it was in 1973.
Not surprisingly, the White House is touting this unconventional MOU as proof of its commitment to enhanced strategic cooperation between the two allies and a renewal of America’s historic pledge to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge against any combination of its enemies. Many senior Israeli officials are far less sanguine, calling the pressure on Jerusalem to abandon hard won benefits yet another example of the administration’s eight-year campaign to marginalize and weaken the Jewish State.
They point to the ill-fated Iran nuclear deal, the wholesale backing of Muslim Brotherhood regimes in the region, the president’s acquiescence to the Russian military presence in Syria, and the alleged secret transfer of weaponry to terrorist groups in Syria, as proof that the administration has no real interest in protecting America’s core interests in the Middle East, let alone those of Israel.
The White House crows that the new $38 billion military aid package for Jerusalem demonstrates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security. Yet, it is a claim that is easily offset by the administration’s incomprehensible decision to release $150 billion in frozen funds to Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. Not only is the deal weak and unenforceable, but evidence abounds that Tehran continues to pursue its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in earnest. The same can be said of its support of global terrorism that principally targets the U.S. and Israel.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the recent MOU is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs and one of Israel’s strongest backers in congress. It is his Senate subcommittee, along with its counterpart in the House of Representatives, that writes the annual U.S. foreign aid bill.
Graham has publicly chastised President Obama for negotiating a deal that, in his view, exceeds the executive’s authority under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution; the provision that gives Congress control over spending, or what is known colloquially as the power of the purse. He contends that not only has the president usurped a core prerogative of congress, but he has done so without any legislative consultation and in defiance of the bipartisan consensus that has characterized U.S.-Israel relations for nearly four decades.
“I’m offended,” Graham fulminated, “that the Administration would try to take over the appropriations process. If they don’t like what I’m doing, they can veto the bill” . . . “We can’t have the executive branch dictating what the legislative branch will do for a decade based on an agreement we are not a party to.” His pique at the president’s overreach is shared by many of the Senator’s colleagues on both sides of the Hill.
Graham is gearing up for a fight, vowing to battle the pact on the Senate floor while, at the same time, pledging to include in his mark-up of the FY 2017 foreign aid bill a substantial increase in funding for Israel above the president’s budget request. Time is on his side.
Unless the MOU is ratified by the senate, the agreement remains non-binding on the United States. A future administration could choose simply to withdraw from the arrangement or renegotiate its terms, presumably with the full participation and concurrence of congress.
With the presidential election just weeks away, the two candidates have an opportunity to affirm their commitment to the separation of powers and declare their intention to withdraw from the MOU should either be elected.
For its part, Israel once again has found itself caught in an internecine contest between two titans of the American political system. Fearful of inflaming an already strained relationship with the White House, Israel and its supporters have struggled to put a good face on a dire situation. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued a press release immediately following the signing heralding the aid agreement, but making no mention of the steep price that the Netanyahu Government is being asked to pay for the deal.
As the world awaits the outcome of November’s presidential elections, America’s allies are watching anxiously. Does the U.S.-Israel MOU portend difficult days ahead for current U.S. aid recipients or will the call to “make America great again” herald a new era of cooperation between Washington and its closest friends? Only time will tell.
Rand H. Fishbein, PH.D. is President of Fishbein Associates, Inc., a public policy consulting firm based in Potomac, Maryland. He is a former Professional Staff Member (Majority) of both the U.S. Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations and Defense Appropriations subcommittees and worked as Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI). For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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