The U.S. State Department has backed away from a demand that Israel return $75 million in military aid which was allocated to it by the U.S. Congress.
The repayment demand, championed by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was described as an underhanded attempt by the State Department to derail a campaign pledge by U.S. President Donald J. Trump to improve relations with the Jewish state.
The dispute is the just the latest example of what appears to be a growing power struggle between the State Department and the White House over the future direction of American foreign policy.
The controversy goes back to the Obama administration's September 2016 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel, which pledged $38 billion in military assistance to Jerusalem over the next decade. The MOU expressly prohibits Israel from requesting additional financial aid from Congress.
Congressional leaders, who said the MOU violates the constitutional right of lawmakers to allocate U.S. aid, awarded Israel an additional $75 million in assistance in the final appropriations bill for fiscal year 2017.
Tillerson had argued that Israel should return the $75 million in order to stay within the limits established by the Obama administration. The effort provoked a strong reaction from Congress, which apparently prompted Tillerson to back down.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) "strongly warned the State Department that such action would be unwise and invite unwanted conflict with Israel," according to the Washington Free Beacon.
Speaking to the Washington Examiner, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) added:
"As Iran works to surround Israel on every border, and Hezbollah and Hamas rearm, we must work to strengthen our alliance with Israel, not strain it. Congress has the right to allocate money as it deems necessary, and security assistance to Israel is a top priority. Congress is ready to ensure Israel receives the assistance it needs to defend its citizens."
A veteran congressional advisor told the Free Beacon:
"This is a transparent attempt by career staffers in the State Department to f*ck with the Israelis and derail the efforts of Congressional Republicans and President Trump to rebuild the US-Israel relationship. There's no reason to push for the Israelis to return the money, unless you're trying to drive a wedge between Israel and Congress, which is exactly what this is. It won't work."
Another foreign policy operative said: "It's not clear to me why the Secretary of State wishes to at once usurp the powers of the Congress and then to derail his boss's rapprochement with the Israeli government."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and President Donald J. Trump (right) on February 1, 2017. (Image source: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
Since he was sworn in as Secretary of State on February 1, Tillerson and his advisors at the State Department have made a number of statements and policy decisions that contradict Trump's key campaign promises on foreign policy, especially regarding Israel and Iran.
August 10. The State Department hosted representatives of the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), an umbrella group established by the Muslim Brotherhood with the aim of mainstreaming political Islam in the United States. Behind closed doors, they reportedly discussed what they said was Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine and the removal of all Israeli control of the Temple Mount and holy areas of Jerusalem. Observers said the meeting was part of larger effort by anti-Israel organizations to drive a wedge between the Trump administration and Israel. The USCMO includes a number of organizations, including American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), which promote "extreme anti-Israel views" and "anti-Zionist" propaganda, and which support boycotts of the Jewish state.
July 19. The State Department's new "Country Reports on Terrorism 2016" blamed Israel for Palestinian Arab terrorism against Jews. It attributed Palestinian violence to: "lack of hope in achieving statehood;" "Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank;" "settler violence;" and "the perception that the Israeli government was changing the status quo on the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount." The report also characterized Palestinian Authority payments to the families of so-called martyrs as "financial packages to Palestinian security prisoners...to reintegrate them into society."
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) called on the State Department to hold the PA accountable in State Department Country reports: "The State Department report includes multiple findings that are both inaccurate and harmful to combating Palestinian terrorism.... At the highest level, the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership incites, rewards, and, in some cases, carries out terrorist attacks against innocent Israelis. In order to effectively combat terrorism, it is imperative that the United States accurately characterize its root cause — PA leadership."
June 14. Tillerson voiced opposition to designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, saying that such a classification would complicate Washington's relations in the Middle East. During his confirmation hearings on January 11, by contrast, Tillerson lumped the Brotherhood with al-Qaeda when talking about militant threats in the region. He said:
"Eliminating ISIS would be the first step in disrupting the capabilities of other groups and individuals committed to striking our homeland and our allies. The demise of ISIS would also allow us to increase our attention on other agents of radical Islam like al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and certain elements within Iran."
June 13. During testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson said he had received reassurances from President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinian Authority would end the practice of paying a monthly stipend to the families of suicide bombers and other attackers, commonly referred to by Palestinians as martyrs. One day later, Palestinian officials contradicted Tillerson, saying that there are no plans to stop payments to families of Palestinians killed or wounded carrying out attacks against Israelis.
May 22. Tillerson sidestepped questions on whether the Western Wall is part of Israel, while telling reporters aboard Air Force One they were heading to "Tel Aviv, home of Judaism." Asked directly whether he considers the Western Wall under Israeli sovereignty, Tillerson replied: "The wall is part of Jerusalem."
May 15. In an interview with Meet the Press, Tillerson appeared publicly to renege on Trump's campaign promise to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem:
"The president, I think rightly, has taken a very deliberative approach to understanding the issue itself, listening to input from all interested parties in the region, and understanding what such a move, in the context of a peace initiative, what impact would such a move have."
Tillerson also appeared to equate the State of Israel and the Palestinians:
"As you know, the president has recently expressed his view that he wants to put a lot of effort into seeing if we cannot advance a peace initiative between Israel and Palestine. And so I think in large measure the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process."
Critics of this stance have argued that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would, instead, advance the peace process by "shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel."
March 8. The State Department confirmed that the Obama administration's $221 million payment to the Palestinian Authority, approved just hours before Trump's inauguration, had reached its destination. The Trump administration initially had vowed to freeze the payment.
In July 2017, the Free Beacon reported that Tillerson's State Department was waging an "open political war" with the White House on a range of key issues, including the U.S.-Israel relationship, the Iran portfolio, and other matters:
"The tensions have fueled an outstanding power battle between the West Wing and State Department that has handicapped the administration and resulted in scores of open positions failing to be filled with Trump confidantes. This has allowed former Obama administration appointees still at the State Department to continue running the show and formulating policy, where they have increasingly clashed with the White House's own agenda."
A veteran foreign policy analyst interviewed by the Free Beacon laid the blame squarely on Tillerson:
"Foggy Bottom [a metonym for the State Department] is still run by the same people who designed and implemented Obama's Middle East agenda. Tillerson was supposed to clean house, but he left half of them in place and he hid the other half in powerful positions all over the building. These are career staffers committed to preventing Trump from reversing what they created."
Notable holdovers from the Obama administration are now driving the State Department's Iran policy:
Michael Ratney, a top advisor to former Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria policy. Under the Trump administration, Ratney's role at the State Department has been expanded to include Israel and Palestine issues. Ratney, who was the U.S. Consul in Jerusalem between 2012 and 2015, oversaw $465,000 in U.S. grants to wage a smear to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office in 2015 parliamentary elections, according to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Ratney admitted to Senate investigators that he deleted emails containing information about the Obama administration's relationship with the group.
Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., a career foreign service officer who serves as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Shannon, the State Department's fourth-ranking official, has warned that scrapping the Iran deal would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. "Any effort to step away from the deal would reopen a Pandora's box in that region that would be hard to close again," he said. His statement indicates that Shannon could be expected to lead efforts to resist any attempts to renege or renegotiate the deal; critics of the deal say that Iran's continued missile testing has given Trump one more reason to tear up his predecessor's deal with the Islamist regime.
Chris Backemeyer is now the highest-ranking official at the State Department for Iran policy. During the Obama administration, Backemeyer made his career by selling the Iran deal by persuading multinational corporations to do business with Iran as part of an effort to conclude the Iran nuclear deal.
Ratney, Shannon and Backemeyer, along with Tillerson, reportedly prevailed upon Trump twice to recertify the Iran nuclear deal. The Jerusalem Post explained:
Washington was briefly abuzz on the afternoon of July 17 when rumors began to circulate that President Trump was eager to declare that Iran was in breach of the conditions laid out in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA).
Those receptive antennas were further heightened given the previous signals sent. After all, the State Department already released talking points to reporters on the decision to recertify Iran. The Treasury Department also had a package of fresh sanctions on over a dozen Iranian individuals and entities ready to announce to appease the hawks who were eager to cut loose from the deal.
But Trump didn't want to recertify Iran, nor did he want to the last time around in April. That evening, a longtime Middle East analyst close to senior White House officials involved in the discussions described the scene to me: "Tillerson essentially told the president, 'we just aren't ready with our allies to decertify.' The president retorted, 'Isn't it your job to get our allies ready?' to which Tillerson said, 'Sorry sir, we're just not ready.'" According to this source, Secretary Tillerson pulled the same maneuver when it came to recertification in April by waiting until the last minute before finally admitting the State Department wasn't ready. On both occasions he simply offered something to the effect of, "We'll get 'em next time."