Does the president really ‘have Israel’s back’?

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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The president’s recent statement that he has Israel’s back was well received at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Conference. But it comes pretty late in the game.

Moreover, actions speak louder than words. At a time when Iran is defying IAEA inspectors and is closer than ever to a nuclear weapons capability, robust investment in Israeli missile defense would help reassure our ally that it has the no-kidding backing of the world’s most powerful military.

Increasing funding to improve these programs would send a strong, reassuring message to all our allies, not just Israel. It would signal that being on the side of the U.S. is a winning proposition. For Iran and the rest of our foes, the message would be: aggression against a U.S. ally means it must also contend with the U.S.

But the president did not increase funding to Israeli missile defense programs in his FY 2013 budget. He halved it. Members of Congress from both parties have criticized the low funding levels at this time of heightened danger from Iran.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ), a House appropriator, flatly admitted the amount is too low, but suggested that the administration was probably low-balling its request on the assumption that Congress would increase whatever the president proposes. That may be the strategy, but if so, it’s unwise planning and dangerously poor leadership — and messaging — on the part of the commander in chief.

The president must realize that budgets reflect policy, and that defense budgets reflect defense strategy.

Practically speaking, Israel needs robust missile defense systems in order to absorb an Iranian attack. Cutting programs to improve Israel’s missile defense systems will have real consequences in the near term.

So, a key policy question is: If Israel decides it must take out Iranian nuclear facilities before Iran achieves a nuclear weapon, will America help defend Israel against an Iranian missile attack? President Obama’s budget does not communicate the answer to that question is yes. Its failure to do so is neither reassuring nor stabilizing.

At Tuesday’s AIPAC meeting, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta tried to explain and defend the president’s bid to slash funding for Israel’s missile defense systems. It’s still more money than the Bush administration requested, he noted. This may come as a big surprise to the White House, but … nobody cares.

What people do care about is the reality that Mr. Obama requested $106 million less than the amount funded last year and $7 million less than what he requested last year … and that the cuts come at a time when Iran is increasing its belligerence and moving closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

At Sunday’s AIPAC session, President Obama stated, “I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Missile defense is more than “just” the only means of defending innocent cities during a missile attack. It also helps deter attacks in the first place. If an aggressor nation knows its attack will be seriously blunted, it’s far less likely to launch its weapons. Missile defense must be included in any serious policy to deter Iran.

The president needs to demonstrate his commitment to Israel in practical ways. Paying lip service in an election year doesn’t cut it.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that President Obama’s most recent funding request for Israeli missile defense programs was $106 million lower than the amount he requested last year. In fact, it was $7 million lower.