America’s left-wing progressives won a victory this week in their long-running battle with Israel. They managed, at least temporarily, to block $1 billion (£730 million) in U.S. funding to replenish the missile interceptors Israel used to shoot down the latest barrage of terror rockets from Gaza. The funding was initially included in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s stopgap spending measure to raise the debt ceiling and fund the U.S. government. The victory was short-lived since House leaders stuck the funding into another bill after the public outcry.
Who opposed the funding? The leaders were the 'Squad,' particularly congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Like others on the hard left across America and Europe, they despise Israel. That includes anything the Jewish state does to defend itself. Why else oppose a purely defensive weapons system? They were driven by ideology, not opposition to a specific weapons system.
Since Pelosi has only a four-vote majority, the Squad’s six members could plausibly threaten to kill the larger spending bill. Pelosi’s top lieutenant, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, jumped into damage control, assuring Israel that the money would come through soon. A spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee added that funding would be part of an upcoming defence bill.
Temporary as the Squad’s victory was, it marks a watershed in Democratic party politics. It shows not only how deeply the party is split over Israel, but how U.S.-Israeli ties are becoming yet another issue dividing the two parties. That change has been developing gradually for more than a decade, after years of bipartisan support for Israel. The opposition to Israel is yet another reflection of how modern progressives differ from the liberals who preceded them.
Consider why Israel needs missile defence and why it developed an effective, high-tech solution. The missile attacks have come from the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, with backing from Iran, Qatar, and rejectionist Muslim states. These actors are engaged in a constant, low-intensity war against Israel, which they occasionally escalate to high-intensity attacks. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have managed to stop most suicide bombers and destroy tunnels Hamas used to infiltrate operatives across the fortified border to kill civilians and take hostages. Israel has been less successful in stopping the least sophisticated attacks of all, incendiary balloons, which are launched from Gaza to start fires wherever they land.
Israel has been very successful in intercepting Hamas’ short-range missiles, built with Iranian help and fired at Israeli schools, hospitals, and neighbourhoods. (Quite a few Hamas missiles misfire, land in Gaza, and killed civilians in their own territory.)
Israel’s success is thanks to 'Iron Dome,' a sophisticated defensive system that can identify incoming missiles, shoot down those that could kill innocents, and let others fall harmlessly into unoccupied areas. Since the short-range missiles spend only a few minutes in flight, the system requires speed and accuracy, and it has both. But it is an expensive success since it is far cheaper for Hamas to launch a barrage of rockets than it is for Israel to shoot them down.
The system deals only with short-range threats (Israel has another for long-range missile) and some still manage to get through. All Israeli schools, playgrounds, hospitals, and businesses include bomb shelters, and even young children know they must leave the playground or classroom as soon as the siren sounds. Still, the inceptors are a remarkable achievement, one that saves the lives of men, women and children in Israel, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.
That success is obviously good news for Israel, but it’s also good news for American foreign policy for a couple of reasons. One is that Israel shares its technological advances and field experience with the Pentagon, which needs similar capabilities. The other is that it promotes regional stability, a major U.S. goal, threatened by Iran and its Islamist allies and proxies.
The Iron Dome promotes stability for a straightforward reason: it lessens the chance of another ground war in Gaza. If Hamas manages to kill large numbers of Israelis, the government in Jerusalem would inevitably response with force, possibly with a ground invasion. Israel wants to avoid that, as do national security officials in Washington. So does the Palestinian Authority, which Washington favours over Hamas, and Arab-Muslim regimes that are developing strong ties with Israel(partly because of the Iranian threat). All of them know another Gaza war would benefit Iran, encourage support for Islamist movements, and threaten the whole region.
These hard-nosed calculations are why U.S. national-security officials unanimously support Israel’s missile defence and favour helping with the costs. The main cost is replacing inceptor missiles, used to repel Hamas’ attacks on Israeli towns, schools, and hospitals. That’s why both the Trump and Biden administrations backed funding to replenish the inceptors.
But helping Israel and especially its military are reason enough for the House’s far left to oppose the funding. Like the European left, they have always opposed support for Israel, whatever form it takes, and favoured movements to isolate it economically ('boycott, divest, and sanction' or BDS). Although the BDS movement has had little impact on Israel’s growth, it has become a staple of left-wing politics. The goal is to delegitimate the Jewish state, which is why Israel policymakers consider it a serious ideological threat.
The Squad’s effort to zero-out funding for Iron Dome is part of that larger effort to delegitimate Israel and weaken its economy and military. For those ideologues, it doesn’t matter that Iron Dome is purely defensive, used to protect civilians and lessen the chance of a major war. What matters is that it helps a nation they loathe defend itself. What’s so striking is that Speaker Pelosi initially conceded to those demands.
The funding battle shows that the Democrats’ internal fight over Israel has become public and that opposition to Israel has gained a major foothold among Democratic activists. Even pro-Israel groups on the American left, like J-Street, are sufficiently divided that they have refused to issue any statement on Iron Dome.
These divisions within the Democratic party and between Democrats and Republicans are not just bad for Israel and U.S.-Israeli ties. By making it harder for Israel to defend itself against attacks on civilians, they raise the risks of another Gaza War, threaten regional stability, and thus harm U.S. policy interests across the Middle East. The Squad’s tantrum over Iron Dome may be over, at least for now, but it leaves America with yet another self-inflicted wound.