US Congress ties bows on gifts to Israel

A Senate bill will set the Obama administration's pledge of $3.8 billion in weapons per year to Israel as a floor rather than a ceiling (Ahmad Al-Bazz - ActiveStills)

Josh Ruebner

The Electronic Intifada  /  November 27, 2020

Before it recesses for the year, the US Congress is finalizing the text of a must-pass bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a slew of significant pro-Israel measures.

The NDAA establishes Pentagon funding levels and sets out many Department of Defense and foreign policy priorities.

Last week, the Senate passed its version of the mammoth bill, totalling nearly 1,800 pages. The House, having passed its own version in July, rejected the Senate language.

With the House and Senate unable to agree, the bill has gone to conference to reconcile differences between the two versions.

During these backroom conferences, legislators hammer out an agreed-upon version of the bill before it is sent back to both the House and Senate for a final pro forma vote.

Flow of weapons to Israel

Most notably, the Senate version of the bill contains the provisions of the United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2020, originally a separate bill which was tacked onto the NDAA in July.

This bill would codify into law the Obama administration’s pledge of $3.8 billion per year in weapons to Israel. Additionally, it would set this level of assistance to Israel as a floor, not as a ceiling.

The bill promises Israel “not less than” $3.3 billion per year in weapons grants in addition to $500 million in missile defense projects.

This bill would enable Congress to appropriate weapons to Israel at a level beyond that envisioned by the Obama administration’s munificent 2016 memorandum of understanding.

The bill also contains a long wish list of other provisions for Israel, including most crucially a five-year extension of Pentagon authorization to stockpile weapons in the country. This stockpile can be accessed by Israel in an emergency to quickly augment US weapons already in its arsenal.

At the same time that the Senate tacked on this bill to the NDAA, it also refused to consider an amendment written by Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic senator from Maryland. Supported by 12 other senators, the amendment would prohibit US weapons for or training to Israeli forces in Palestinian territory illegally annexed under the Trump administration’s “peace” plan.

In addition to the perennial authorization of $500 million in joint US-Israel missile defense programs, the Senate version of the NDAA also includes a new provision to establish a US-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group.

That group would work “to identify and expeditiously field capabilities that the military forces of both countries need to deter and defeat respective adversaries.” It is designed to further enmesh joint US and Israeli weapons research and development, funding and deployment.

Expedited munitions

The Senate version also calls for the Pentagon to “expedite deliveries of precision-guided munitions to Israel.”

Although the House version of the bill does not contain these significant new provisions for Israel, there is strong reason to believe that the final version of the NDAA that will be sent to the president will look more like the bloated Senate version.

That is because the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, appointed three conferees with impeccable pro-Israel credentials to iron out the differences with the Senate on provisions under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Those conferees are Eliot Engel, New York Democratic representative; Brad Sherman, California Democratic representative; and Michael McCaul, a Republican representative from Texas.

Engel is the outgoing chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee whose primary loss to newcomer Jamaal Bowman was a substantial blow to the Israel lobby.

Sherman is a long-time hawkish Israel supporter who is seeking to replace Engel as the chair of the committee. In recent months, he has been slightly moderating his positions to appeal to the more progressive elements in the Democratic caucus. For example, he opposes the use of US tax dollars to implement Israeli annexation.

McCaul is the highest-ranking Republican on the committee and is one of the leaders in Congress seeking to undermine the campaign for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality through boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel.

These conferees’ support for the extra pro-Israel provisions in the Senate version of the NDAA is almost assured, as the House already passed a bill similar to the US-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act last year.

That legislation was even more extreme than the Senate bill, allowing a loophole in the Arms Export Control Act to enable Israel to receive unlimited amounts of weapons, free of usage constraints, in an emergency declared by the president.

It is likely that the House will accede to the Senate version of the NDAA when it comes to Israel.

By doing so, Congress will deliver one final “unprecedented bonanza for Israel,” in the words of veteran Capitol Hill analyst Lara Friedman, as the culmination of an unmatched partiality in US policy during the Trump era.

Josh Ruebner is adjunct professor at Georgetown University, managing director of American Muslims for Palestine and author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace