President Obama arrives in Israel on Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Iran, Syria, and the Middle East peace process topping the agenda. But even in Jerusalem, 5,900 miles from Washington, the president cannot escape the impact of the sequester.
There may not be a good Hebrew translation for sequestration, but it hasn't stopped Israelis from talking about it — and fearing its consequences.
Israel, one of the biggest single recipients of American foreign aid, will feel the sting of the looming cuts; the country is not immune, despite its protected status in Congress. Officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which closely monitors the aid levels, put the cuts at $155 million over the rest of the fiscal year. That is out of the total U.S. aid package for Israel of $3.1 billion a year, a figure included in the continuing resolution now moving through Congress.
The issue will also surface on the final leg of the trip in Jordan. But with so much more at stake in Israel, the concern has been greater there. "The Israelis are very concerned about cuts to aid because the aid is such an important part of how they build their defense programs and how they plan their defense spending and procurement over a long period of time," said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "So the aid will be a question.... They're concerned about the impact of sequester."
When the sequester first took effect, Israel feared a deeper cut. According to Israel's Army Radio, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz had worried the cut would be $250 million. Israel was reassured when new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised that the reductions would not affect Israel's rocket or missile defense programs. In a statement in early March, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Hagel had promised Israel "his strong commitment" to "maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge and continued U.S. support for missile and rocket defense systems in spite of fiscal constraints."
Supporters of Israel had at one point contemplated asking Congress to spare Israel from the sequester. Representatives of AIPAC have argued to lawmakers the importance of maintaining current aid levels. But they insisted they were not asking for an "exemption" for Israel.
Indeed, the aid was under fire even before the sequester hit. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., used a trip to Israel earlier this year to call for a reduction in assistance to the country and to foreign countries in general, saying that the United States cannot afford to continue sending money. "It will be harder to be a friend of Israel if we are out of money," he said. "It will be harder to defend Israel if we destroy our country in the process."
In his talks with Netanyahu, the president is expected to stress that he has been there for Israel over the last four years, despite his rocky personal relationship with Netanyahu. That point will be made at the very first stop of his visit. He will go directly from the airport arrival ceremony to an Iron Dome battery set up specially for him near Ben Gurion Airport. There, he will be able to inspect the air defense systems jointly developed by the two countries.
It is estimated that in the last decade, more than 15,000 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In recent years, most have been intercepted by the Iron Dome system, a point Obama is almost certain to stress. His stop there is an effort to "reassure the Israeli public that he is committed to Israel's security," Malka said. "Despite the tense relationship with Israel's prime minister, President Obama has increased military aid, expanded the size and scope of joint military exercises, supported Israel diplomatically, and led the effort against Iran's nuclear weapons," he said.
From Israel, Obama will go to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The two leaders will hold a press conference before Obama returns to Jerusalem for a speech to Israeli youth. On Friday, he is scheduled to visit Mount Herzl and travel to Bethlehem to tour the Church of the Nativity. He then takes the final leg of the trip to Jordan, meeting in Amman with King Abdullah.
With up to 350,000 refugees from Syria now in Jordan, the king continues to look for more assistance from the West. But, just as in Israel, he faces the prospect of reduced U.S. aid because of the sequester. Secretary of State John Kerry pointedly included Jordan as one of the countries facing cuts at what he told Congress was "such a volatile time." In 2008, the two countries reached an agreement that has the United States sending $660 million a year to Jordan.
On Saturday, the president will do some sightseeing in Petra before returning to the United States.