US assistance to Israel took a partisan turn Sept. 20 as a hawkish group of Senate Republicans tore into President Barack Obama's record-breaking $38 billion aid package.
Seven lawmakers signed on to legislation from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would provide an extra $1.5 billion in missile defense and direct assistance to Israel's military next fiscal year. They object to the White House's efforts to short-circuit unsolicited annual aid hikes by Congress as well as the elimination of a 26% carve-out for Israel's domestic defense industry instead of US weapons-makers.
"Now is not the time to tell the Iranians that we're going to be less supportive of Israel's ability to defend herself," Graham, the chairman of the Senate spending panel that controls foreign aid, said at a press briefing to unveil his bill. "Now is not the time to say that we're going to nickel and dime Israel."
The $1.5 billion aid boost is attached to legislation to renew sanctions on Iran's energy sector that expire at the end of the year. Six other senators have signed on to the bill: Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Mark Kirk, R-Ill.; and Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Graham said he plans to separately introduce legislation to restore the carve-out for the Israeli defense industry.
Democrats countered that their Republican colleagues are trying to score political points by trying to appear more pro-Israel than the president weeks before the November election. The United States and Israel signed the 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last week, earning public praise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials.
"The president just signed an MOU that shows the extent of our commitment to them, which we will make good on," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Congress has the right to go above and beyond the $38 billion, but probably not in the political atmosphere like [Republicans] seem to be encouraging."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said her conversations with Israeli officials convinced her that they're "really pleased with what's happening."
"If [Republicans] are trying to make this into some partisan bidding war, that's kind of insulting to the relationship between Israel and America," she told Al-Monitor.
The Obama administration portrays its effort to restrict congressional add-ons as a way to streamline budgeting and avoid recurring spending fights. As part of the package, Israel signed a letter vowing to return congressional appropriations beyond the MOU's agreed-upon amount during the next two fiscal years.
Earlier this year, the White House threatened to veto the House Defense spending bill for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, in part because it allocates $601 million for Israel missile defense, $455 million more than the Pentagon's request. The request for additional funding was made by the government of Israel, according to the report accompanying the Senate's version of the bill.
Graham said the $1.5 billion supplemental amounts to about 1% of the windfall Iran is receiving through the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions. He said merging the sanctions renewal and the aid boost makes sense as a dual message to Iran: Cheating on the nuclear deal will carry consequences, and "the more provocative you are toward Israel and our allies in the region, the more we're going to help them."
The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said Congress would be better off reauthorizing the Iran Sanctions Act without extraneous aid provisions.
"I think there is an issue here of whether this is a real issue for Israel," he told Al-Monitor, "or whether these are some partisan roadblocks being thrown up."
Graham acknowledged that he doesn't know if Israel even wants or needs an extra $1.5 billion. He said he's seen Netanyahu's letter to Secretary of State John Kerry vowing to refund additional congressional appropriations, but he made clear that Congress wasn't bound by that agreement.
"The last thing in the world I want to do is do a deal with Israel that shuts off the ability to provide assistance unless the president agrees," he said.