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What does the Iron Dome debate say about American politics?

A picture taken on August 5, 2021, shows an Iron Dome defense system battery, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the Hula Valley in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon. [JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images]
A picture taken on August 5, 2021, shows an Iron Dome defense system battery, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the Hula Valley in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon. [JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images]

There was a time when Israel's requests for US aid, military or otherwise, were granted spontaneously and unreservedly. That is no longer the case. While the majority members of the House of Representatives and Senate remain staunchly committed to Israel's security, a growing number are bucking the trend. Tel Aviv's recent request for $1 billion in emergency funding to restock its Iron Dome defence system has clearly illustrated this.

Although the bill was passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives, this was only after some Democratic members succeeded in having it removed from a stopgap spending bill and moved to the annual defence bill, which has to be signed off by the Senate.

The earlier hubris that followed the House vote was quashed this week when Republican Senator Rand Paul blocked a Senate effort to fast-track the emergency funding to Israel. Consequently, this development has started a debate among the pro-Israel lobby in the US, as well as in Israel itself.

At the heart of the debate is a growing realisation that Israel is gradually losing its traditional bipartisan support in Congress. Even though the shift is by no means seismic, it is, nonetheless, quite enough to cause concern.

Why did this small minority of eight Democratic lawmakers vote against the bill? Were they persuaded by ideological considerations? Or, were they driven by the need to maintain the support of their constituents? And what are the possible scenarios if more lawmakers join the ranks of these so-called radical dissenters?

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As elected representatives of their communities, the present position of this small group is hardly different from that in which President Harry Truman found himself in November 1945. When urged by serving American diplomats in the Middle East not to heed Zionist requests , he famously explained his motivation: "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents."

Today, the tables have turned considerably, to the extent that many lawmakers cannot afford to ignore their Arab constituents or their supporters, especially on the question of Palestine.

Likewise, they cannot display any recklessness or indifference to issues of transparency and accountability for the use of American taxpayers' money. Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar demonstrated this in a tweet on 23 September: "This vote is not about simply funding the Iron Dome. It's about adding an extra billion dollars on top of the $73million we already allocated this year. That's 14 times more than we normally spend on it and 60% of what we've provided for it over the course of a decade."

Accordingly, one question remains: why should American taxpayers fund the purchase of missiles for Israel's Iron Dome anyway?

Politically, the explanation has not changed in decades: that Israel is the only democratic state in a rough neighbourhood in which it faces existential threats. And, as an ally, it deserves unlimited US support. Hence, since 1948, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the US had provided Israel with $146 billion in military and economic aid.

However unconscionable it may seem, the fact is "Israel's security" desires were always considered paramount, even above American needs. This is why, as recent as December 2020, one in four – 81 million Americans – were experiencing food insecurity. At the same time, Israel, which has a GDP per capita of $47,000 (higher than Britain, France, Italy and Japan), was receiving $3.8 billion in US aid annually.

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Surely there is no other way to describe this grotesque reality other than an injustice. It is no wonder, therefore, that most of the Congressmen and women who call for greater scrutiny of US aid to Israel are from African American and Latino communities themselves.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, African American and Latino families experienced hunger at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. In the case of the former, it was between 19 and 29 per cent compared with seven and 14 per cent among whites. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way; but according to Professor Molly Anderson of Middlebury College in Vermont: "The prevalence of hunger in the US is a political choice."

The controversy over Israel's bid for $1 billion in emergency funding to restock its Iron Dome defence system will continue for a short while, but, ultimately, it will be granted. In the long term, however, something has to give.

In the age of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), American politicians will have no choice but to stand for the concerns and needs of their constituents. They will have to decide once and for all which comes first: serving the needs of the American people or pandering to the fantasies of a foreign country.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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