CAPITOL HILL - The United States and Israel signed a landmark 10-year military assistance agreement Wednesday, as U.S. lawmakers of both political parties stressed that Congress will determine actual aid levels to the Jewish state.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) promises to provide Israel with a record $38 billion from 2019 through 2028, boosting the yearly commitment from $3 billion to $3.3 billion and locking in an additional $500 million annually for Israeli missile defense.
White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice underscored the “ironclad bond” between the United States and Israel at a signing ceremony held at the State Department.
“This [MOU] marks a significant increase over our existing funding, and it will ensure that Israel has the support it needs to defend itself, by itself, and to preserve its qualitative military edge,” Rice said.
Representing Israel was Acting National Security Advisor Jacob Nagel, who said the aid package "strikes the right balance between the needs and capabilities of both countries” and “enables Israel to better defend itself, by itself” against any threat.
Nagel said the MOU will fund “a robust missile defense” to counter threats in the region.
The aid package was the product of months of delicate negotiations between the U.S. and Israel, and included stipulations that rankled some U.S. lawmakers. Israel agreed to use the aid to buy American-made weaponry and agreed not to lobby Congress for additional funds.
“That is a backdoor effort to basically take over the appropriations process,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told VOA. “Under this construct, Congress has been dealt out, and I will not accept that.
“The MOU is not binding on Congress. It’s an annual appropriation,” added Graham, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee.
On that point, the Senate’s second most powerful Democrat agreed.
“The actual funding is going to be subject to congressional action,” said Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. “They [the administration] can make a recommendation of what we expect to give to Israel, but Congress makes the final decision.”
Graham said the MOU provides Israel with certainty about the assistance it will receive, but at levels below the $4 billion in total military assistance that committees in both houses of the Republican-led Congress formulated for 2018.
“It’s hard for me to believe that in 2018 the conditions in the Mideast are going to be such that we need to lock in a lower [aid] number,” Graham said. “I think it’s nickel-and-diming Israel.”
Durbin was more upbeat on the MOU.
“I am prepared to support it,” he said. “We stand behind Israel’s right to exist."
U.S. commitment ‘unwavering’
The signing ceremony provided a rare moment of congeniality between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a statement, President Barack Obama said the MOU underscores that “the United States has been Israel’s greatest friend and partner. This commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering and is based on a genuine and abiding concern for the welfare of the Israeli people and the future of the State of Israel.”
Obama restated America’s commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that the MOU will help further a core U.S. objective: “that Israelis can live alongside their neighbors in peace and security.”
“The president is a true friend of Israel,” Durbin said. “It’s also true that he disagrees with some of the policy decisions made by the Netanyahu government, particularly when it comes to settlements and negotiations.
“But the president has been committed to Israel. This memorandum of understanding is a long-term commitment by our nation to continue this alliance,” the Democratic senator added.
“I wish the administration had been as hard on the Iranians as they have been on Israel,” Graham complained. “They are walking on bended knee through glass to keep the Iranian agreement that’s a disaster. They are accommodating Iran at every turn, but they are grinding Israel down here.”
VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this report from the State Department.