The Trump administration is considering forcing Israel to hand back some $75 million in U.S. aid dollars that were awarded by Congress following a hotly contested effort by the Obama administration to financially limit the U.S.-Israel military alliance, according to senior Congressional sources and others familiar with the situation.
Congress allocated Israel an additional $75 million in U.S. aid last year, bringing the total package to around $38 billion, despite attempts by the Obama administration to restrict Israeli efforts to lobby Congress in favor of greater funding for several key military projects.
Lawmakers had objected to the Obama administration’s last minute Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Israel, which capped U.S. aid dollars to the Jewish state and included a provision barring Israel from requesting greater financial assistance from the U.S. Congress.
Now, the Trump administration is considering forcing Israel to hand back the extra $75 million in order to stay in line with the Obama administration’s original MOU, according to multiple sources, who told the Free Beacon that Congress is preparing for a fight with the current administration if it chooses to move forward with the plan.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is said to be spearheading the effort to request Israel give back the additional funding, arguing that Israel must stick to the letter of the former Obama administration’s MOU, despite objections by Congress, sources told the Free Beacon.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) is said to have "strongly warned the State Department" earlier this week "that such action would be unwise and invite unwanted conflict with Israel," according to one senior Congressional aide familiar with the situation.
Congressional leaders remain concerned that the Obama administration’s MOU with Israel limits lawmakers’ constitutional right to allocate U.S. aid dollars in whatever manner they see fit. The MOU has long been a cornerstone of the U.S.-Israel military alliance and Congress has traditionally amplified funding after consulting with Israeli counterparts.
The State Department is said to be engaged in a lobbying effort to convince the White House National Security Council (NSC) to allow it to request that Israel hand back the additional $75 million so it remains in line with the Obama administration’s MOU, sources said.
Cotton and other Congressional leaders see this as a reckless and unnecessary move that would only increase tensions with Israel at a time when the Jewish state and the U.S. are cooperating on a range of key issues, including the fight against ISIS, Iran, and other terrorist forces in the Middle East.
If the State Department does choose to demand that Israel hand back the money, Congress is prepared to strongly react, sources said.
Insiders who spoke to the Free Beacon about the brewing situation said the State Department-led effort is an attempt to undermine Congress and derail the White House’s strong working relationship with Israel.
Tillerson’s State Department has emerged as a source of tension inside the administration, with multiple sources telling the Free Beacon earlier this year that Foggy Bottom is perceived as being in "open war" with the White House on a range of key issues, including the U.S.-Israel relationship, the Iran portfolio, and other matters.
"This is a transparent attempt by career staffers in the State Department to f—k with the Israelis and derail the efforts of Congressional Republicans and President Trump to rebuild the US-Israel relationship," according to one veteran congressional advisor who works extensively on Israel. "There's no reason to push for the Israelis to return the money, unless you're trying to drive a wedge between Israel and Congress, which is exactly what this is. It won't work."
Sources said there is an easy workaround to bring Israel in line with the MOU that would avoid sparking Congressional ire and tensions with the Trump administration.
This method involves clipping the additional $75 million from future appropriations for U.S.-Israel aid, a move that would quietly bring the countries back in line with the agreement and avoid public tensions.
"It's not clear to me why the Secretary of State wishes to at once usurp the powers of the Congress and the derail his boss's rapprochement with the Israeli government," one longtime foreign policy operative familiar with the matter independently told the Free Beacon.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.) had held up passage of the 2016 MOU over disagreements with the Obama administration’s restriction about Israel personally lobbying Congress for increased funds.
"Congress is not a party to this agreement nor is this agreement binding on future congresses," Graham said in a statement. "Congress has an independent duty to make a decision about the proper level of support for Israel or our other allies. To suggest this (agreement) will bind future presidents and congresses for the next decade is constitutionally flawed and impractical."
Graham is said to have viewed it as an effort to trample on Congress’ right to allocate U.S. taxpayer funds and he worked to ensure Israel received the additional $75 million, which was included in the final fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill.
A State Department official, speaking on background, told the Free Beacon that the 2016 MOU "remains in place," but would not specifically comment on internal deliberations about potentially requesting that Israel had back the millions in additional funding allocated by Congress.
Asked about the matter, an NSC official told the Free Beacon, "We are not going to comment on internal United States government discussions."