WASHINGTON – Two powerful House Republicans accused President Barack Obama of jeopardizing Israel's security with a "record low" budget request for a cooperative U.S.-Israeli missile defense program. The election-year claim fails to take into account the billions the administration wants in aid for the Mideast ally and ignores a few Washington realities.
In his defense blueprint released this past week, Obama asked for $99.8 million for a program designed to protect Israel from short-range ballistic missiles and rockets that might be fired from Gaza or Hezbollah in the Lebanese territory or longer range missiles from Iran or Syria. The request for 2013 is slightly less than what the administration sought in 2012, $106.1 million.
"We are deeply concerned that a time of rising threats to our strongest ally in the Middle East, the administration is requesting record-low support for this vital defense cooperation program," said the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Florida. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, California Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon.
In a letter to Obama, they cited his "iron-clad commitment" to Israel's security in the State of the Union address and argued that "such deep cuts in your budget hardly seem to suggest 'iron-clad' support."
Ramping up the criticism, the Republican Jewish Coalition released an online ad Friday that accused Obama of "slashing" U.S. support for the program and trying to "weaken Israel's security just when it needs it most."
That charge and the complaints from Ros-Lehtinen and McKeon, who are backers of Obama's GOP rival Mitt Romney, make no mention of the president's request of $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel next year. That's a slight increase over the $3.075 billion in the current year.
Election-year politics and the increasing Iranian threat to Israel have ratcheted up the bitter rhetoric in Washington and in the the presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats are keeping a close watch on Jewish voters who not only are an important political base for Democrats but whose financial contributions are critical for either party.
The sudden GOP outcry over the missile defense request one day after Obama released his proposal belied the fact that the administration had told Congress how much it wanted — last year.
In its 2012 budget, the administration spelled out future requests for the U.S.-Israeli missile defense program, a typical practice for defense budgets — $99.8 million in fiscal 2013, $95.7 million in 2014, $96.8 million in 2015, $103.9 million in 2016 and $106 million in 2017.
The $6 million cut in Obama's request, a small amount in a $614 billion defense budget, is part of the deeper reductions in projected military spending dictated by the deficit-cutting plan that the president and congressional Republicans, including Ros-Lehtinen and McKeon, backed last August.
Since 1988 and the early days of U.S.-Israeli cooperation on the program, a certain congressional truth has held through Republican and Democratic administrations. Commanders in chief propose a specific amount for the missile defense program knowing full well that Israel will contact members of Congress and ask that they come up with more money. Congress routinely complies.
Last year, lawmakers took the $106 million request and added millions more, providing $216 million. Congressional aides have no doubt that lawmakers will do the same this year.
Responding to the criticism of Obama, David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said: "We are truly through the looking glass here; only those with the most partisan ... agenda would view the largest military assistance package for any country in history at a difficult budgetary time as anything but a powerful way of supporting our closest ally, Israel."