Obama and Israel Cut Congress Out
of the Aid Game
By Josh Rogin
September 14, 2016
As part of a 10-year U.S.-Israel
security aid agreement, the Israeli government has signed a letter promising to
give back any additional money that Congress appropriates, effectively
preventing Congress from giving Israel any more money than President Obama wants
it to have.
The White House will
sign today a new 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel
that would increase U.S.-Israel security aid from $3.1 billion a year to $3.3
billion, starting in 2018. The deal would also include, for the first time, $500
million of annual missile defense funding, bringing the annual total to $3.8
billion. But Congress, in its appropriations bill, has been planning to give
Israel $3.4 billion, plus $600 million for missile defense, in 2017.
The Obama administration had been holding
off on signing the deal until Congress reduced
its funding to meet Obama’s proposed levels, but Congress refused to
do so. So the administration pressed Israel to promise not to lobby for
additional money. Israel agreed, but that wasn’t enough.
In an unprecedented arrangement,
the White House and the Israeli government have found a way to prevent Congress
from increasing U.S. aid for 2017 and 2018. The Israeli government has signed a
letter promising to return any money given by Congress above the MOU levels for
those two years.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.),
chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that manages the foreign
affairs budget, told me he was informed of the unusual arrangement by the
Israelis and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
“As part of this deal, Israel
has signed a letter to this administration saying they will not accept the money
above the MOU amount and they would return it,” Graham said. “I said, ‘I
think y’all have lost your mind. You’ve been trying to get a foreign
government to help you take over the appropriations process.’ ”
Administration sources confirmed
to me that the arrangement exists and said that the Israeli government had
“volunteered” to give back any money above the deal’s limits. Graham said
the Israelis told him they wrote the letter promising to return any extra funds.
“You know the White House
pressured them into writing that letter,” Graham said. “It is a level of
antagonism against Israel that I can’t understand.”
Graham pointed out that Congress
regularly increases foreign aid above the levels in MOUs when dealing with other
countries. For example, Congress increased foreign aid to Jordan above its $1
billion annual allotment last year in light of that country’s refugee crisis.
A senior Obama administration
official told me that keeping the levels of aid equal to the MOU was important
because a critical component of the MOU is that it provides predictability for
“In this context, changes to
funding levels under the MOU in either direction are a threat to the integrity
of the MOU, impeding planning and undermining confidence in future
appropriations,” the official said.
The official pointed to a July 25
statement issued by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that
said “it is not in Israel’s interest for there to be any changes to the
fixed annual MOU levels” and pledging that Israel is not seeking additional
“Israel understands that, once
the precedent of changes to MOU levels is established, it would create
uncertainty that is undesirable for both sides,” the official said.
“Ultimately, the United States fully agrees with Israel on the need to respect
the integrity of the MOU and avoid changing the appropriation level in any given
year. It is for this reason that we also oppose any appropriation greater or
less than those specified in the MOU.”
But even former Obama
administration officials have stated that it’s actually standard for Congress
to retain its right to appropriate foreign aid at levels it alone determines. Tamara
Cofman Wittes, a Brookings Institution scholar and former Middle East official
in the Obama administration, tweeted this week that Congress still has the right
to appropriate whatever it wants.
Wittes pointed out that the last U.S.-Israel
MOU made clear that the agreement was “subject to the appropriation
and availability of funds for these purposes,” meaning that Congress still
played a role.
Graham is planning to take his
fight over what he sees as an executive power grab to the Senate floor. He
is going to propose a new and additional $1.5 billion supplemental aid bill for
Israel next year, and he predicts Republicans and Democrats will support it.
Why Israel would agree to both not
seek and not accept any additional funding from Congress is unclear. What is
clear is that the White House has effectively taken Congress out of the Israel
aid game for at least two years. If Israel’s security needs go up between now
and then, it will have to look outside the United States for help.
The office of House Speaker Paul
Ryan (R-Wis.) issued a statement Wednesday reaffirming Congress’s right to
appropriate security aid to Israel at its own discretion, regardless of the
levels in the MOU.
“Congress was not consulted
during the negotiation of the MOU,” said Ryan’s press secretary AshLee
Strong. “We will continue to appropriate the funds that we determine are
necessary to meet the needs of our shared security interests in the Middle