My colleague Josh Rogin writes, “After long and arduous negotiations, Israel and the Obama administration have agreed on a landmark military aid package that would increase U.S. aid to Israel over the next 10 years. But the White House is reluctant to sign the deal because officials are upset one leading lawmaker won’t go along: Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).” As Josh notes, the administration essentially sent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Graham to tell him that the administration was insisting on a cap of $3.3 billion. The bill also would limit Israel’s ability to purchase from its own defense industries. In the past, development of Israel’s own independent defense industries, known for innovation, were seen as a boon to both the United States and Israel.
Graham, in a brief phone conversation, vehemently argued that it is not up to Congress to sign onto the memorandum of understanding (MOU). “Congress is not a party to the negotiation,” he says. He points out that an MOU has never been seen as a ceiling for funding. “We increased money two times for Jordan, [appropriated] another $275 million. No one has objected to that.” Graham is right that Congress had no role in the negotiations with Israel (any more than it did in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran, which majorities in both houses of Congress vehemently oppose), but it did agree on a bipartisan basis on a $3.4 billion figure for Israel as part of its appropriations process. Within that amount, it also upped the amount for missile defense to $600 million, higher than the MOU figure of $500 million and much higher than the measly amount the administration requested in its 2017 budget ($145.8 million).
Graham’s concern is two-fold.
First, he objects to the executive branch telling Congress what it can appropriate. “The prime minister can sign it or not,” Graham says of the MOU. That does not affect Congress, he stresses. “If it’s that important to the administration, it can veto the [appropriations] bill.” He says, however, “It’s very inappropriate for any foreign leader to lobby Congress [to keep appropriations lower].” He repeats, “I’m not going to be told what to appropriate.” He calls the administration’s effort to bind Congress on a deal it did not make “inappropriate in terms of our process.” He remarks, “There is a role for Congress [in budgeting]. I am dumbfounded the White House would put Israel in this box. Israel wants certainty, but it also needs the money.” Graham reiterates, “The president ties Congress’s hands, future presidents’ hands and doesn’t have the same attitude toward Jordan. What is it about Israel?” He answers his own query: “This antagonism toward Israel is getting old.”
Second, Graham says it is in the interest of the United States to signal to Iran we are not backing away from Israel. “The next decade is going to be very volatile. I see more risks, not fewer. I see Iran up to no good.” He points out that Iran has delivered thousands of missiles to Hezbollah. “If you don’t see the region falling apart, you are just not looking.” The concern is bipartisan, he says. “Most Democrats feel like it is in our national security interest to do more in the region.” Squeezing Israel — along with administration reticence on a range of issues — tells Iran the United States is not serious about protecting Israel or its own security interests, he argues.
Graham is going to seek a supplemental bill for the region that may take care of his concerns about Israel. “We need to fund our troops in Afghanistan. They were supposed to go down to zero; we have 8,600, which is not enough but we have to pay for them. Jordan needs more money. We need to give the Kurds money.” If Israel can be included within that regional funding, Graham’s insistence on more funding in the context of an Israel-specific 10-year deal would be alleviated. If the regional supplemental bill does not come about, he says, “It’s time to take the vote [for Israel specifically].” He hopes Republican leadership agrees.
Beyond the MOU, Grahams wants to vote for re-authorization of existing Iran sanctions due to expire in December. He says he is also working with House members on a bill that would impose sanctions for Iran’s continued test-firing of missiles in violation of United Nations resolutions.
No matter what the administration signs, of course, the next Congress and president can change. The next president can request more money; the next Congress can appropriate more money. It is, therefore, remarkable that the administration would go to such efforts to deliver one more kick in the shins to Israel before it leaves office.