Dispatch

Panetta Counts the Ways

Panetta Counts the Ways

ASHKELON, Israel — It was a public display of affection even a hard-liner could love.

Standing in front of a rocket-busting Iron Dome battery paid for by American tax dollars, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak posed side-by-side for cameras in the middle of a hot and dusty farmer’s field just five miles from the Gaza border. Then they gushed.

The "special relationship" Israel has with the U.S. military is stronger than it’s ever been, Barak claimed. "This is the strongest alliance that we have," Panetta added, flirting with a Mitt Romney-esque gaffe that may reverberate in Great Britain.

Barak called him "my friend." Panetta called him "Ehud."

It was a starkly contrasting image from Romney’s rabbi-walk to the Western Wall this weekend. Romney, in Jerusalem speeches, overtly and implicitly claimed President Obama has not done enough for Israel’s defense and not used the military enough to pressure Iran. The White House, he claimed, had created "diplomatic distance" here, and he called for "further action" against Iran in Israel’s defense.

In reality, it is hard to imagine what else the United States could do to back Israel more strongly than it already has. Instead of specifics, Romney’s attacks were directed at the White House, ignoring the tight relationships between U.S. and Israeli senior military officers, and keeping his rhetoric at the 10,000 foot-level. At that level, though, Panetta and Barak are right about the candidate’s close ties.

Asked for his view on Romney’s characterizations, Barak invoked the old rule of not commenting on American candidate positions, but made his position clear. U.S. and Israeli militaries have grown stronger and closer over decades, no matter what the party colors of the U.S. president.

"We have a long tradition of friendship with America," he said. "I have been exposed to it personally and I have seen it going deeper and deeper along the years" no matter which party ran the White House. "Of course, we expect it to be continued by the next administration," he said, no matter who wins in November.

Panetta, for his part, said the proof is "backed not only by our words but by our deeds." Iron Dome, he said, is but one example and "a game changer" for Israeli security because of its 80 percent success rate. Last month there were 12 rocket attacks in the area and the battery behind them knocked them all down, including five Grad rockets launched simultaneously from Gaza, according to Israeli Col. Zvika Haimovich, commander of all of Israel’s "active-defense" units like Iron Dome. Since last year, the systems have hit more than 100 rockets from the Gaza Strip.

Already, the United States allocated more than $200 million for the system in 2010, and the House-passed authorization bill includes $680 million for 2013. President Obama released an additional $70 million, which came from last month’s reprogrammed 2012 funds. It all comes on top of more than $3 billion in aid to Israel expected this year.

Asked about Romney’s assertions, Panetta chuckled with a smile, and then said, "The United States and Israel have the strongest relationship when it comes to the military area that we’ve ever had." Hardware, joint exercises, military aid and financing from America has given Israel a "qualitative edge," including allowing Israel to be the only country in the region to get the Joint Strike Fighter.

Indeed, since World War II the United States has provided $115 billion in bilateral aid to Israel, more than it has given any other country, according to a March report by the Congressional Research Service. Almost all of that money was military aid, and here is where the "special relationship" is clear.

CRS reported that nearly all of Israel’s aid is delivered within 30 days of each fiscal year, unlike any other country’s. Israel also is given special allowances to use the funds to buy Israeli-made weapons, or conduct their own arms research and development, as opposed to normal requirements to buy U.S.-made goods.

Additionally, the Bush administration and Israel signed a 10-year $30 billion aid package that raised the yearly total to $3.1 billion — a figure that Obama has honored, CRS found. Of that, nearly $100 million in missile-defense funds falls within the 2013 Defense Department request.

For all of Romney’s focus on U.S. support for Israel, though, it is not a hot topic among Republicans in Congress, and particularly not among national security leaders. For members like Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the concern of the day decidedly domestic: sequester.

The Budget Control Act passed last year forces cuts to discretionary accounts but doesn’t mandate which ones. If Congress lets the sequester occur on January 2, 2013, however, Israel stands to lose $263.5 million because of mandatory across-the-board cuts, CRS estimates. With the White House indicating Wednesday that military personnel costs would be exempted from sequester cuts, Israeli aid and other hardware costs would come under even greater threat.

That could hit hard in Israel, where Congress figures U.S. grants account for up to 22 percent of the nation’s defense budget. The first Iron Dome batteries deployed last year, including Ashkelon’s, cost roughly $50 million each, and each battery contains 20 rockets at nearly $90,000 each.

In 2012, the United States allocated about $110-120 million for Israel’s David’s Sling system to block medium-range missiles and the Arrow systems built for longer-range ballistic threats, like those possibly posed by Iran.

"These missile shields do not start wars, they prevent wars," Panetta stressed, before leaving for additional meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — widely portrayed, rightly or wrongly, as wanting to strike Iran sooner than Washington is willing to concede.

If that ever happens, U.S. officials worry that retaliatory rocket and missile attacks into Israel could cause mass civilian casualties at a level which Israel could not let pass without response. In turn, that retaliation could spark a new and larger conflict in a region where conflict already surrounds Israel.

For that reason and others, Panetta again called for sanctions and diplomacy before military strikes. But he also brought some of the most hawkish language on Iran he’s ever used, saying not just the "military option" was on the table but that the U.S. was "prepared to implement" it.

The Pentagon’s commitment to Israeli security, Panetta argued, is "rock solid."