Clinton, Panetta defend administration on Israel

Pushing back hard, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are rejecting Republican criticism of President Barack Obama's policy toward Israel, arguing that the election-year attacks ignore the strong cooperative relationship and the record billions of dollars in U.S. aid for the Mideast ally.

In separate appearances on Capitol Hill, Clinton and Panetta defended the administration against complaints from some House Republicans that a slight reduction in the budget request for a joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense program is a sign of inadequate support for a longtime friend. In fact, Obama's budget for next year calls for $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel, a slight increase over the current level and the most for any foreign country.

"I can assure you that not only does the Obama administration strongly support the defense and security of Israel, but we have put more money behind that pledge than has ever been put before," Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "We've increased U.S. security assistance to Israel every year since" the 2009 budget.

Clinton noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the bilateral security cooperation between the two countries unprecedented.

Republicans see a political opening in the uneasy relationship between Washington and Jerusalem over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the state of Mideast peace talks, further complicated by the Obama administration's pressure on Israel to hold off on a possible military strike against Iran's disputed nuclear development program. The criticism comes ahead of Netanyahu's visit to Washington next week to meet with Obama and congressional leaders.

The Iranian threat to Israel has stoked the bitter rhetoric both in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail, where Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have accused Obama of throwing Israel under a bus and emboldening the Palestinians. The fierce talk reflects that Jewish voters, who comprise only 2 percent of the electorate nationwide, are a critical part of Obama's base and could be the difference in close battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada.

Financial contributions from Jewish voters are critical for both parties.

In a harbinger of the criticism if Israel does hit Iran, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., asked why the administration "doesn't give complete support to Israel and say, you know, if Iran continues with its program, we will do whatever is necessary to stop that program and give Israel the support that I think they need."

At a House Budget Committee hearing, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., pressed Panetta on why the administration budget requests for the missile defense program had declined. Obama has asked for $99.8 million for a program designed to help protect Israel from short-range ballistic missiles and rockets that might be fired from Gaza or from Lebanese Hezbollah territory or for longer-range missiles from Iran or Syria. The request for 2013 is slightly less than what the administration sought in 2012, $106.1 million.

"What justification, given what we see out of the nation of Iran, can you give?" Price asked.

"We have significantly increased the amount of funds that we provide to Israel," Panetta said. "It's now $650 million, which more than doubles what was the level in the prior administration of about $320 million."

Panetta later told lawmakers that U.S. support for Israel is "unshakeable."

In a recent letter to Obama, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and House Armed Services Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., challenged the "record-low support for this vital defense cooperation program." They made no mention of the $3.1 billion request for military assistance.

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 2013, $95.7 million in 2014, $96.8 million in 2015, $103.9 million in 2016 and $106 million in 2017.

The GOP criticism also comes ahead of a meeting Sunday of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Obama, Netanyahu, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will address the group.

Lawmakers, especially those facing re-election this year, have furiously pushed resolutions and legislation on Iran sanctions that are strongly backed by AIPAC.