The Pentagon will press Congress for additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome system designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars, a boost for Israel as the Obama administration tries to dissuade it from launching a unilateral strike on Iran.
The announcement from the Pentagon on Tuesday comes against the backdrop of election-year criticism from Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers that the Obama administration’s support for Israel, the U.S.’s longtime ally, has been inadequate.
“Supporting the security of the state of Israel is a top priority of President [Barack] Obama and Secretary [of Defense Leon] Panetta,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement. “The Department of Defense has been in conversations with the government of Israel about U.S. support for the acquisition of additional Iron Dome systems and intends to request an appropriate level of funding from Congress to support such acquisitions based on Israeli requirements and production capacity.”
The Pentagon cited the effectiveness of the system, which in recent weeks intercepted more than 80 percent of the nearly 300 rockets and mortars fired by Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel.
In a special request in the 2011 budget, the Obama administration and Congress agreed on $205 million for the Iron Dome system. The current budget included no funds for the program, but did provide millions for other Israeli missile defense programs.
Obama’s budget for next year calls for $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel, a slight increase over the current level and the most for any foreign country.
The Pentagon statement provided no specific numbers, but congressional aides said a possible request would be the purchase of 10 battery systems at a cost of $50 million each.
Earlier this month, Obama met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressed for time to give diplomacy and sanctions to thwart Iran in its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu made it clear that his country had the right to defend itself against an Iranian nuclear threat.
Republicans see a political opening in the uneasy relationship between Washington and Jerusalem over Israeli settlements in the Judea and Samaria and the state of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The relationship has been further complicated by the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel to hold off on a possible military strike against Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
The Iranian threat to Israel has stoked bitter rhetoric both in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail, where Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have accused Obama of throwing Israel under a bus and emboldening the Palestinians. The fierce talk reflects that Jewish voters, who comprise only 2 percent of the electorate nationwide, are a critical part of Obama’s base and could be the difference in close battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada.
Congressional Democrats welcomed the Pentagon announcement as a fresh sign of the administration’s support for Israel.
“Iron Dome helps give Israel the ability to protect its civilians while giving its leaders the strategic space and time to take the appropriate action to root out terrorists and carefully plan their next steps,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) a member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Rep. Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a co-sponsor of legislation that would authorize the president to provide aid to Israel to buy additional Iron Dome anti-rocket systems if it requests it.
“Iron Dome is a game changer,” Berman said. “The threats Israel faces from incoming, indiscriminate terrorist rocket attacks are countered by this cutting-edge anti-missile system. Iron Dome is fundamentally shifting political, diplomatic and military realities on the ground, while saving lives of innocent Israelis. Today’s statement is a further step in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak praised the Pentagon’s move, calling it “another expression of the deep security ties between Israel and the U.S. I praise the U.S. administration for its assistance in strengthening Israel’s defenses.”