Early Wednesday, the IDF intercepted a shipment of Syrian-made M-302 rockets with a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles). The missiles, which apparently went through Iraqi airspace to Iran and then by ship to the Red Sea, were likely headed to Sudan. From there, they would have gone by truck through the (mostly unguarded) Sinai to Gaza, from which they would have been capable of reaching nearly all of Israel.
Israeli naval commandos on their way to board the Klos-C cargo ship, which was found to be smuggling missiles from Iran to the Gaza strip, via Sudan, March 5, 2014. (Image source: Israel Defense Forces)
That makes this a very bad day for the annual "Obama slashes Israeli missile defense programs and Congress puts the money back" dance. For years, the Obama Administration has sent a budget to Capitol Hill that included steep reductions in prior year spending for cooperative U.S.-Israel missile defense programs. Congress complains loudly then puts in the money it believes the programs merit. With the release of the budget figures two years ago, Defense News noted:
The Obama administration's recently released budget request details a cut in funding to the "Israeli Cooperative," as the jointly developed Arrow and David's Sling programs are known, from $106.1 million in fiscal 2012 to $99.9 million in fiscal 2013. And since Congress more than doubled the administration's request last year to $235.7 million, President Obama's budget would more than halve the cooperative's funding. Moreover, this marks the third consecutive year (emphasis added) that the administration has requested less funding and it will not be the last, according to its own budget projections.
Although the bipartisan effort in Congress keeps the money at a relatively even level, this is a terrible way for the Obama Administration to do business:
- Israel has made excellent use of the money and accounts for it in a well-established manner – unlike, say, much larger appropriations for Pakistan or Afghanistan.
- The American defense establishment wants, needs and appreciates Israeli missile defense capabilities and innovation. Money spent in cooperation with Israel on missile defense greatly expands the reach of American R&D dollars.
And perhaps most important:
- When the President is leaning hard on Israel to be forthcoming and flexible on issues of its own short and long-term security, the signal that missile defenses are expendable as cost-cutting maneuver sends the wrong signal to both friends and adversaries.
The President told reporter Jeffrey Goldberg in a widely disseminated interview:
The legitimate question for Israel would be making sure that their core security needs are still met as a framework for negotiations led to an actual peace deal. [American interlocutors] have come up with a plan for how you would deal with the Jordan Valley, how you would deal with potential threats to Israel that are unprecedented in detail, unprecedented in scope.
It might seem ungracious to point out that the highest echelon of Israel's defense and political establishment reject the fundamental American premise: that a multinational force, rather than the IDF, in the Jordan Valley will protect Israel. Furthermore, the plan is time-defined. With the disintegration of state boundaries around Israel and the rise of ungoverned or under-governed spaces that spawn jihadist groups of varying allegiance, size, and lethality, what happens when the end point is reached but the threats remain either within the West Bank or beyond?
The President was not unmindful of the larger problems:
You have the chaos that's been swirling around the Middle East...Syria...Lebanon...Gaza. And understandably, a lot of people (in Israel) ask themselves, 'Can we afford to have that potential chaos on our borders, so close to our cities? ...There would still be huge questions about what happens in Gaza, but I actually think Hamas would be greatly damaged by the prospect of real peace.
Does the president really believe that Hamas, the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood – supported, oddly, by Iran – would throw in the revolutionary towel if Israel makes a deal with Mahmoud Abbas for the West Bank? "Oh, okay," Ismail Haniyah, Hamas's boss in Gaza might say, "Abbas got a rump state for which he had to pay with a fixed Israeli border, no right of return and recognition of Israel as a Jewish State (Kerry parameters). I guess there's nothing for us to do but give up our Charter, our arms, and plans for the elimination of the Zionist entity, not to mention Fatah, and do the same. Never mind the Brotherhood, and never mind Iran."
What worries Hamas in Gaza is the elimination of its sources of weapons supply; the possibility that Egypt will enforce the closure of the smuggling tunnels from Sinai; Israel's ability to intercept weapons shipments (not all, not all the time, but a lot of them); and the fact that Israel's entire defense calculus shifted the moment Iron Dome proved its worth. Israel no longer has to respond to every hostile act by Hamas. It takes the hair-trigger off the situation when the Israeli government can tell the public, "We can defend you from rockets; we ARE defending you; and we will determine how best to do that."
What is true for Gaza is true for Syria, Lebanon, and even for Iran. It should be a high priority for the Administration to ensure that Israel does not feel the need to engage in hostilities with the neighbors based on the agitation of an anxious populace. Missile defense buys time through reassurance for sound strategic reasoning, and the Administration should appreciate – and fund – that.
Even The Washington Post has come to understand that the President's management of foreign policy is,
based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality. It was a world in which "the tide of war is receding" and the United States could, without much risk, radically reduce the size of its armed forces. Other leaders, in this vision, would behave rationally and in the interest of their people and the world. Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances - these were things of the past. … [Some leaders] will not be deterred by the disapproval of their peers, the weight of world opinion or even disinvestment by Silicon Valley companies. They are concerned primarily with maintaining their holds on power.
As long as that is true in Iran, Syria, Russia, Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon, Israel will have to rely on its military and intelligence capabilities to defend its people.
President Obama has a well-known bias against missile defenses – our own and everyone else's. So perhaps the President is just having and eating his cake: while he knows Congress will change it, HIS budget doesn't support missile defense. While it is a poor choice on the part of the Administration to game that money, the so-far stalwart support of a Congress that understands that both Israel's security and our own require missiles defense is welcome.