For predictable reasons, the issue of U.S. security assistance to Israel has overtaken everything else to become the battleground over which U.S. policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fought. Security assistance is the most visible and quantifiable element of U.S. support for Israel, activates the question of whether the IDF commits human rights violations that implicate the U.S., provides powerful and easily graspable talking points on all sides, and perhaps most saliently is the issue within Israeli-Palestinian policy over which the legislative branch has the greatest purview given Congress’s power of the purse. All of this turns votes such as last week’s on $1 billion in supplemental Iron Dome funding into a three ring circus.
In the course of two days, the mood within the pro-Israel community went from histrionic alarm to celebratory glee, whereas the other side traveled the same path in reverse. In both cases, there should have been more equanimity on both ends. The initial blocking of the money for Iron Dome and the final result of the Iron Dome vote may look straightforward, but they are not, and there is a danger of many misreading the underlying dynamics.
When the $1 billion for Iron Dome was put into the emergency spending and debt ceiling bill on Tuesday and then quickly stripped out following threats from progressive Democrats to torpedo the entire bill as a result, the sky-is-falling rhetoric from Israel and the gloating from corners of the progressive world were immediate. Both portrayed this as a fundamental and significant event, demonstrating for Israelis that the U.S. could allegedly no longer be counted on to provide for Israel’s defense due to the virulent anti-Israelism taking over the Democratic Party, and for progressives that the alleged stranglehold of the Israel lobby over U.S. policymakers was slowly being broken. Never mind that the unwillingness of even one House Republican to break ranks and vote for the continuing resolution in order to provide for Israel’s defense should have conceivably been as big a story as a handful of Democrats who were intent on voting the same way, or that this was as much a story about process—inserting the Iron Dome provision into the bill mere hours before the vote—as it was about policy. The breathless pronouncements were in.
When the Iron Dome funding was then introduced two days later as a stand-alone bill and approved in a landslide—420 in favor, 9 opposed, 2 present—it rendered the revolutionary sentiments from two days earlier even more fatuous. It exposed those who complained about a supposed indefinite delay or even an outright refusal to fund Iron Dome as not understanding U.S. politics or policy, and pulled the rug out from under those who viewed Tuesday’s maneuvering as a precursor to withdrawing U.S. support for the IDF entirely. This should have been an opportunity to rethink the wisdom of unsubstantiated categorical conclusions, but there was little evidence of that this time either. So rather than take the New York Times’s mind-bending pronouncement that this demonstrated the Jedi mind trick power of “influential lobbyists and rabbis” over Democrats in Congress, what follows are some actual reasons why the Iron Dome funding and how it went down is indeed significant but in ways that have not been widely considered.
As one-sided and overwhelming as the vote in favor of Iron Dome funding looks, it was actually even more so. The vote was commonly portrayed as a fulfillment of U.S. commitments to Israel and as part and parcel of living up to the Obama-era MOU that provides $3.8 billion in annual security assistance to Israel, but it was no such thing. The Iron Dome request was a supplemental funding request coming on top of the $500 million for missile defense that is part of the annual $3.8 billion, making the vote one to approve a 26% increase in security assistance to Israel. Despite all of the attention that cutting, conditioning, or restricting security assistance to Israel has received, driven by the Democratic presidential primary debate last year and by the enthusiasm for these moves in progressive circles, only eight House Democrats voted against providing even more security assistance to Israel. It is difficult, if not impossible, to look at this vote and still credibly talk about the Democratic Party having been taken over by anti-Zionism or antisemitism, or sound the alarm about Israel being abandoned. The vote also reveals the overreach in trying to portray Israel in the same light as the globe’s worst actors and serial human rights violators; it is not a portrayal that aligns with policymakers or with the sentiments of most Americans.
It is also the case, however, that Iron Dome funding is as easy a win as exists in the context of assistance to Israel. Iron Dome has no offensive application or capability, is wielded against rockets shot by U.S.-designated terrorist organizations, indisputably saves Israeli civilian lives, and creates some of the most memorable images of combat anywhere as videos abound of Iron Dome interceptors meeting rockets head on in the skies above Israeli cities. Representative Betty McCollum, well-known for her legislation that would restrict U.S. security assistance to Israel based on Israeli military detentions of Palestinian teens and children, voted in favor of additional Iron Dome funding. The sponsors of new legislation unveiled last week that would create new end-use restrictions on U.S. security assistance to Israel tied to Israeli activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem voted in favor of additional Iron Dome funding. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most high profile Squad member and who introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this month to block the sale of precision-guided munition kits to Israel, changed her vote at the last minute from no to present, in the clearest sign of how differently Iron Dome funding is viewed compared to other types of security assistance.
The Iron Dome vote should not be read as an indication that business will continue as always, with opposition to security assistance to Israel remaining confined to the margins. The lesson is that there is and will remain wall to wall support for Israeli security when it is unambiguously clear that security is indeed the issue. But fewer and fewer people, whether in Washington or elsewhere, are willing to embrace Israel’s self-definition of what constitutes a security imperative when it involves the West Bank, and supporting obvious and legitimate Israeli security needs such as Iron Dome will also provide the cover and credibility for Members of Congress who take a more skeptical view of Israeli security requests that appear to them more about maintaining permanent control over Palestinians than about keeping Israelis safe. Just because, as my colleague Aaron Weinberg points out, restrictions on security assistance are unlikely to net the result that they are designed to achieve doesn’t mean they won’t continue to gain ground as a way of registering displeasure with Israeli actions and discomfort with the U.S. role in contributing to them. Just as those who want to downgrade the U.S.-Israel relationship will get nowhere with spurious charges and legislative overreach, the Israeli government and the pro-Israel camp must understand that saying “security” as the response to every objection is a tactic that is at a tipping point of failing as often as it works. The Iron Dome saga should not obscure that while Israel’s position in the U.S. is in some ways rock solid, those ways fall into a very specific band of activity.