By Bridget Johnson
Two key pro-Israel appropriators say that record funding for missile defense systems in the Middle East remains a top priority despite political pressure to make deep spending cuts.
Before the last Congress recessed, proponents pushed for $205 million for the Iron Dome — an Israeli defense system that intercepts short-range rockets that can be fired from Gaza or Lebanon — to be included in the yearlong continuing resolution (CR) to fund FY 2011. Because of issues unrelated to Israel funding, Democrats and Republicans weren't able to come to an agreement on a long-term resolution and the funding was dropped from the short-term CR. President Obama sought the funds in May on top of $200 million in the CR for the long-range Arrow missile-defense program and other joint U.S.-Israeli anti-missile measures.
In August, House appropriators pushed funding for Israeli missile defense to $422.7 million, its highest level ever.
Funding for Israel missile defense over the past two years adds up to nearly $1 billion. Aid to support the short-range David's Sling anti-missile system, for example, more than doubled from $37 million in FY 2008 to $80 million in FY 2010.
With the mounting Iranian threat and Israel's role as America's strongest ally in the Middle East, lawmakers say, Congress will need to continue to strongly fund these programs.
"I continue to view the Jewish state as America's most important military and intelligence and economic ally and friend in that most dangerous and important part of the world," said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), who sits on the Appropriations subcommittees on Defense, Homeland Security and State and Foreign Operations.
"Therefore, considering that those who still threaten Israel continue to ramp up their efforts in obtaining more lethal and accurate weaponry, it serves America's vital national interests in protecting Israel to continue to provide her with a substantial qualitative and quantitative military and intelligence edge," Rothman told The Hill.
Facing the vow of the new Republican House majority to slash spending across the board, appropriators say those cuts need to be made wisely and put national security interests first.
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), named chairwoman Friday of the House Appropriations subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, said that her panel's funding has jumped 33 percent over the past two years, and lawmakers on the subcommittee will look to those recent funding additions first when it comes to cuts.
That could include presidential initiatives on global health and climate change.
"As we look at cuts we have to always look at national security and the security of our partners, which is our security, too," Granger told The Hill.
"More seriously than at any time, we have to prioritize what is the most important thing at this time," she said.
Granger said that Defense Secretary Robert Gates's cuts to the Pentagon budget unveiled Thursday, which don't touch the anti-missile programs, "reaffirmed the need for missile defense."
"Given the rightful focus by this Congress on watching every penny of taxpayer dollars we're going to want to make certain that every penny spent by our subcommittee is spent wisely, and that includes how best to continue to meet America's vital national security interests in Israel's national security interests," Rothman said.
Both lawmakers cite strong bipartisan support for continuing to fund the missile defense programs. Although specific requests in the new year and new Congress aren't yet known, funding may increase even more as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle use the tools at their disposal, including oversight and spending, to address the Iranian threat.
"The U.S. Congress is clearly continuing to be strongly in support of our most important ally in the region — Israel — and thus is concerned about any step by any nation or other entity that might threaten her," Rothman said.
When it comes to those threats, the appropriators aren't just concerned about Iran, as evidenced by the Iron Dome funding to shield Israel from attacks by Hamas or Hezbollah.
Granger notes that Hezbollah is now estimated to have about 45,000 missiles, four times as many since the 2006 war when the group, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., fired Katyusha rockets from Lebanon into Israel. Hezbollah, a political party that has been gaining traction in Lebanon, has been beefing up its arsenal despite the U.N. Security Council resolution ending the conflict that called for Hezbollah to disarm.
On Dec. 22, Rothman fired off a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visits Washington this month, asking the European ally to back off its plans to sell 100 anti-tank missile systems to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
"As you know, Lebanon is in a precarious situation whereby Hezbollah is in a powerful position to usurp the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)," Rothman wrote. "If this were to occur, Israel would be in grave danger of having your anti-tank missiles used against her."
Rothman said he wasn't able to get additional signatures on the letter because members were trying to wrap up business before the holiday break, but he said "100 percent" of the Defense subcommittee members agree with him.
"The concerns expressed in my letter are shared by at least 90 percent or more of the U.S. Congress," he said.
Sarkozy hasn't yet responded.
Granger said there should be "some very serious, serious discussions" about the French arms sales and other concerns about allies potentially undermining Israeli defense efforts.
Washington needs to continue to "keep the lead" on missile defense while keeping the GOP commitment to cut funding back to 2008 levels, she said.
Granger's subcommittee still has some work from last year to take up, she said, but will quickly get to oversight hearings to figure out which programs are working, which are not, and how spending can be done most efficiently.
"There's just an urgent need in that area to continue the very strategic partnership we have with Israel," she said.
Rothman said that appropriators will need to respond to the "developing and ever-changing threats that confront Israel."
"Since there has been a consistent and robust support for both joint U.S.-Israel military endeavors, research and development endeavors as well as support for Israeli programs such as the Iron Dome in the past, I fully expect there to be no break whatsoever in our strong support for the Jewish state and her military and intelligence needs," he said.
"Israel has assisted in the security of the United States on literally thousands of occasions in nearly immeasurable ways since her birth and continues to be an even more essential partner with the U.S. in not only protecting our shared values and interests but the very national security of the United States," Rothman said.