Holding back on defensive systems for Israel could have dangerous consequences
Several days ago, a group of so-called progressive Democrats, led by the “Squad” — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib, (Mich.) and Cori Bush (Mo.) — successfully killed a provision in the House Continuing Resolution that would have provided $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The progressives refused to support the resolution unless the Iron Dome funding was deleted.
Unlike other systems whose sale to Israel the Democratic left has in the past opposed, such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, Iron Dome is purely a defensive system. It is a critical element in Israel’s ability to defend itself from attacks by short-range rocket and artillery shells. In other words, it defends Israeli civilians against rocket attacks emanating from Hamas-controlled Gaza and portions of Lebanon that Hezbollah controls.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears to have taken a neutral stance on the matter. She did not advocate for removal of the assistance from the continuing resolution, nor, did she block it. It was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) who strongly supported a stand-alone bill to restore the funding that a number of pro-Israel Democrats put forward in the aftermath of the House vote on the continuing resolution. The bill passed the House by an overwhelming 420-9 majority.
In any event, there is little chance the resolution, which would fund the government through December, with or without a provision about Iron Dome, will go anywhere. The C.R., which includes provisions such as suspending the federal debt limit and funding disaster and refugee relief, has virtually no chance of passing the Senate. Nevertheless, the fact that for the first time ever a purely defensive system was denied to Israel, for however brief a period, is an ominous omen for stability in the region.
To begin with, Israel, like many Middle Eastern states, has become increasingly uneasy about America’s growing inclination to turn inward. The withdrawal from Afghanistan rattled officials in Jerusalem, as it did elsewhere. The Biden administration’s determination to revive the nuclear deal with Iran also worries Israeli leaders, however sotto voce they now couch their concerns. A move to deny a key element in Israel’s missile and rocket defense system only intensifies Israeli worries about Washington’s willingness to support it in the face of what Israel considers a threat to its very existence.
It has long been a worry of many American policymakers and analysts that Israel would launch a preemptive attack against Iran and drag the United States into a conflict. Should the increasingly influential left wing of the Democratic Party continue to pursue policies that appear to be hostile to Israel, and at some point succeed in denying Israel systems it needs to defend itself against Iran and terrorist groups, the temptation for Israel to pre-empt would be increasingly difficult to overcome.
There are a variety of ways to push Jerusalem both to improve the lives of Palestinians and take a two-state solution seriously. Denying defensive systems to a state that continues to view itself as embattled is not one of them. On the contrary, it would simply reinforce Israel’s sense that its existence remains in jeopardy, with results that not only would reverse America’s ability to lower its profile in the Middle East but could drag it back into that region even more deeply, and dangerously, than ever before.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004, and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.