Is Obama increasing or slashing funding for Israeli missile defense?

Has the Obama administration vastly increased its funding for Israel’s missile defense, or has it slashed it?

A number of recent news stories, statements from Republicans and a query from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are saying that the White House wants to cut funding for missile defense.

At the same time — and just before the latest barrage of rocket attacks on southern Israel — the Pentagon last weekend announced a huge increase in funding for the Iron Dome program, designed to rebuff short-range attacks.

So what’s the answer?

It depends first of all on what one includes in “missile defense.”

If one includes Iron Dome, then funding has gone up, and then some. The Missile Defense Agency announced March 8 that it was hiking its assistance to Israel for procuring Iron Dome batteries from $176 million for fiscal year 2015 to $429 million, available immediately. (Islamic Jihad launched the rocket attacks on March 12.) That’s $118 million more than the $301 million Israel had reportedly requested for Iron Dome.

If one does not include Iron Dome … Wait a sec. Why should one not include Iron Dome? Rockets are missiles, and Iron Dome intercepts them, right?

The difference is not one of technology but of budgeting. Iron Dome, like the $3.1 billion Israel gets in defense assistance, is purely assistance. Funding for anti-missile programs like Arrow and David’s Sling is cooperation — both the United States and Israel fund and carry out the development of the programs. The U.S. has a proprietary stake in missile cooperation programs; it does not in Iron Dome.

So, if one does not include Iron Dome, it’s true, the White House is asking Congress to reduce funding for missile defense cooperation, but not assistance.

More accurate, however, would be to say that the Obama administration is continuing a longstanding tradition of presidents lowballing requests for missile cooperation funding.

Obama in his 2015 budget, as the Washington Free Beacon first reported, asked for $96.8 million for missile cooperation, about a million more than it had asked the year previous –- but $190 million less than Congress had allocated that year.

That last clause is key:  Congress has for years substantially upped the presidential “ask.” Here are three examples from the administration of President George W. Bush, in 2002, 2005 and 2007.

So what gives? Well, this ain’t an Obama thing, or a Bush thing. It’s a pork thing.

As this “Breaking Defense” account bemusedly notes, Israeli requests to Congress to increase such funding “helpfully” note which U.S. states will benefit from the asks. The funding is not just about assisting Israel but about keeping and creating U.S jobs.

A lowball presidential request for Israel funding allows lawmakers to decide where to add spending, which means greater flexibility in deciding where the money goes. And spending U.S. assistance dollars for Israel inside the United States has always been a key component of such assistance.

As a Pentagon spokesman told me when I asked about the Iron Dome increase, “Significantly enhanced levels of co-production by U.S. industry in the United States is a new stipulation under the agreement.”

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Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.