The last-minute passage of a military aid package in the US Congress provokes consideration of how this fits into the larger American public’s approach to Israel, Hamas and the Middle East. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.
It is easy to be startled, alarmed (or angered) by news the US Congress has voted to resupply Israel with Iron Dome anti-missile missile technology – and thereby to be convinced that somehow, somewhere, there is a mysterious, mystical, or nefarious business at work in all this. But first, there are some details to take on board about the decision to appropriate $225 million worth of support when the US Congress’ House of Representatives voted 395 to 8 in favour of the measure.
This vote came as Congress was just on the verge of adjourning for their summer recess. After the break they will return for a short autumnal session after Labour Day in September and then as they adjourn again for the final campaign push for the midterm election two months later. The thing of it is, this vote for re-funding a Israeli defense system was just about the only thing Congress actually managed to accomplish in this part of the current legislative term – so deadlocked is it between the two parties, a little over three months before this midterm election. This was also partially due to the confusion and conflict within the Republican Party over immigration reform – and their disagreements with the Democratic-controlled Senate over pretty much everything else as well. They couldn’t even successfully pass a bill that provided for the Iron Dome funds and anything else without getting into a tangle over corresponding cuts to offset any new spending.
Or, as Foreign Policy noted, “A measure to fund Iron Dome alongside wildfire assistance was blocked Thursday night after Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma insisted that the Senate find corresponding offsets somewhere in the federal budget to pay for it — a request Democrats rejected. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada dropped wildfire assistance from the legislation and the Iron Dome measure passed without objection. The advanced missile-tracking system calculates the trajectory of incoming rockets and fires interceptors at them if they are projected to land in heavily populated civilian areas. Each interceptor costs up to $100,000, which is why the Israeli government requested the $225 million from Congress. On Wednesday the Pentagon also supplied Israel with 120mm mortar shells and 40mm grenades from a stockpile maintained within the Jewish state.”
Meanwhile, the AP added further context, explaining, “It’s [immigration] the issue that vexed Republicans as much as any in their 2012 presidential loss. It’s the one problem the party declared it must resolve to win future presidential races. And it still managed to bedevil the party again last week, when House Republicans splintered and stumbled for a day before passing a face-saving bill late Friday night.
The AP went on, “The fiasco proved anew that a small number of uncompromising conservatives have the power to hamper the efforts of GOP leaders to craft coherent positions on key issues — including one that nearly two-thirds of Americans say is an important to them personally, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released last week. ‘It would be very bad for Republicans in the House not to offer their vision of how they would fix the problem,’ South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said when the initial House bill on immigration collapsed. While Republicans in the House are able to reject the proposals of Democrats, Graham said, that’s not enough: ‘At least they have a vision.’ ”
And in fact, Iron Dome is not, strictly speaking, purely an American system being supplied to the Israelis at all. The original planning, design and development for this anti-missile missile system was actually carried out by Israeli military research and development teams a decade earlier. The Americans then came to the party afterwards. The resulting program has, in various incarnations, been jointly developed and funded further over the years. As a result, this newest tranche of $225 million was essentially appropriated to replenish Israeli funds for the continuing production of the Iron Dome system in the midst of the current hostilities, rather than a foreign military aid grant, per se. (Moreover, much of the funding previously provided Israel in earlier appropriations from the US related to Iron Dome was actually been provided subject to provisions US contractors would participate in its production. The US also may be looking to make use of the capabilities of this anti-missile system in future for other circumstances.)
At the time this appropriation was being passed, Republican Senator John McCain had told the media, “We could not go out [on adjournment] for a month or five weeks and not act to help the Israelis replenish their supply of Iron Dome missiles.” In the Senate deliberations over Iron Dome, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn – usually a hard-line budget hawk eager to cut spending – had initially opposed the Iron Dome appropriation on budgetary grounds, but eventually relented after meeting with McCain and another Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Thereafter, the Senate passed the measure without a formal roll call vote.
Once the Senate had approved the measure, McCain had asked the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, to approve the Iron Dome funding in order to show Israel that, as he said, “we will stand with them and that we will provide them with what they need in order to defend themselves.” A second part of the measure authorised the transfer of grenades other small arms ammunition to the Israeli Defense Force – from prepositioned stockpiles already on the ground in Israel itself, rather than being shipped from America.
(As an aside, sometimes it seems that while protests over the Iron Dome funding have been quick in coming from many, it is also possible at least some part of this may derive from a conflation of the Iron Dome system with other offensive weapons used to attack targeted buildings and people inside Gaza itself. It is not as if Iron Dome is anything other than an anti-missile shield. Given the imbalance in this asymmetrical fighting, there has been little international criticism about the intended targets of the many rockets fired into Israel during this round of hostilities. While there has been some real anger over the extensive death and damage inside Gaza, including the wrecked homes, schools, mosques and UN-related buildings as a result of Israeli bombardments and shelling, there has generally been little comment over the Hamas rockets save to say they haven’t caused much damage.)
Nevertheless, some two years ago, Human Rights Watch had determined “such weapons are therefore indiscriminate when used against targets in population centers. The absence of Israeli military forces in the areas where rockets hit, as well as statements by leaders of Palestinian armed groups that population centers were being targeted, indicate that the armed groups deliberately attacked Israeli civilians and civilian objects.” Sadly, perhaps for some, Iron Dome’s success leaves a tinge of disappointment the rocket volleys have not – yet – successfully found their intended targets. Consequently, the failure to achieve such results has underscored Iron Dome’s crucial importance for the Israelis (and thus Israeli politicians) in the conflict.
In the process of the US Congress’ consideration over this appropriation, one view seems to give outsized credit for its passage to successful lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). These organisations have not been sky about giving themselves a pat on the back for this victory.
As the Times of Israel, for example, reported on Iron Dome’s passage, “A number of organisations which had pushed Congress to approve the additional funding before it left for a month-long recess greeted the bill’s passage with enthusiasm. The American Jewish Committee expressed ‘heartfelt appreciation to the United States Congress for approving additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.’ ‘Iron Dome has been a genuine life-saver for Israelis enduring round-the- clock barrages of Hamas rockets and missiles from Gaza,’ said AJC Executive Director David Harris in a statement late Friday evening. ‘Thankfully, Congress, in the spirit of its long support for the U.S.-Israel relationship, recognises the essence of the ruthless Hamas threat to Israelis of all ages. And Israel’s experience with this system will also no doubt prove invaluable to the U.S. and other democratic countries that may face the threat of violence from both state and non-state actors.’ Shortly after the resolution’s passage, AIPAC circulated an email to supporters suggesting that they launch a letter writing campaign to thank members of Congress individually for their support of Iron Dome.”
While foreign policy issues are usually not a key determinant of most congressional debates in American politics, absent a crisis that directly affects the country in a major way, Congress has, of course, been acutely interested in Israel’s security for many years. Taking measures that have been designed to preserve – or that can be positioned to be seen as tied to Israel’s security – have usually been congressional no-brainers – all positives and no negatives.
It is easy to call AIPAC the most powerful lobby group in Washington – even if the American Association of Retired People, with its catchment base of every single American over the age of 50 and thus a group with a vested interest in the fate of two of the biggest federal programs around – Social Security and Medicare, would give any other lobby group a run for its money in the influence peddling sweepstakes. Nevertheless, despite their claims for the campaign ribbons over the Iron Dome vote, it is also important to recognise that a real source of support for Israel comes about because this congressional feeling so closely echoes a broader sense of Americans on the question of Israel. And that reality is something that has been the case for decades.
In its most recent survey of attitudes reported only a week ago, the Pew Research Center has reported, “As fighting continues to rage in Gaza amid calls for a cease-fire, about twice as many Americans say Hamas (40%) as Israel (19%) is responsible for the current violence. Just a quarter (25%) believe that Israel has gone too far in responding to the conflict; far more think Israel’s response has been about right (35%)…. A majority of Republicans (60%) say Hamas is most responsible for the current violence. Democrats are divided: 29% say Hamas is more responsible, 26% Israel, while 18% volunteer that both sides are responsible.
“There also are deep differences over Israel’s response to the conflict: Nearly half of Republicans (46%) say Israel’s response has been about right while another 19% say it has not gone far enough; just 16% think Israel’s response has been excessive. Among Democrats, as many say Israel has gone too far (35%) as say its response has been about right (31%); 9% say Israel has not gone far enough.
“A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this month found that the partisan gap in Mideast sympathies is as wide as it has been at any point since the late 1970s. Nearly three quarters of Republicans (73%) said they sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with 45% of independents and 44% of Democrats.”
This partisan split between levels of Republican and Democratic support is crucial for a special reason. And it is something that is under-appreciated by many foreign audiences who sometimes prefer to see the hand of American Jewry as the primary factor. While most American Jews (regardless of whether they strongly support Israeli military or political decisions) remain firmly in the Democratic Party camp and its more liberal social-economic policies, and are generally relatively supportive of Israel in a general sense.
But, broadly speaking, the most influential voting group on Israel is actually the 35 million or so fundamentalist/evangelical/born-again Christians in America. These people strongly support – in general terms – a maximal Israeli military position based on a complex of religiously inspired reasons related to their creed and its doctrines. Concurrently, they are also almost uniformly lined up in support for Republicans – especially more conservative ones – including Tea Party supported candidates. And those are the very Republicans who have of control in the House of Representatives. In that sense, AIPAC is really playing to a deck already stacked in its (and Israel’s) favour – regardless of the feelings or views of American Jews, something reflective of the lower levels of support for Israel’s current policies on the part of Democrats.
(Source: The Economist)
As a result, given all that, is support for Israel within the American body politic unshakeable and unwavering – on into the foreseeable future? Not necessarily. Other survey data (see above) also notes that among America’s younger voters, age 18 to 49, support for Israel (and apportioning blame over the current hostilities as well as a determination over whether Israel’s current military measures are proportionate to the threat) posts lower numbers than is the case with older voters. This is not a salutary finding if one is hoping to hold onto support, going on into the future. Moreover, in other worldwide surveys, Israel’s standing as a positive or negative influence in world has taken a serious knock, putting it down, now, close to North Korea’s neighbourhood. This latter data can not be read as good signs for building and holding the international moral high ground on into the future.
And so, given the apparent military impossibility on the part of the Israelis to totally defeat Hamas before the on-the-ground damage goes significantly beyond any kind of internationally tolerable limit; or, conversely, given Hamas’ clear inability to inflict the kind of damage on the Israeli state that would lead to a generally acknowledged defeat on the ground; somewhere, some time, some how, a compromise solution will have to be painfully worked out between the hostile parties. Compromises are, ultimately, what occur when nobody is happy with the result, but they are even less happy with the circumstances without the compromise. Perhaps neither side is really quite there yet, but soon? DM
Photo: An Israeli soldier guards an air force Iron Dome missile intercepter unit stationed on the outskirts of Haifa, Israel, 01 September 2013. EPA/JIM HOLLANDER
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle