State Department demands that Israel return millions in military aid
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pushing the White House to demand that Israel return $75 million in military aid that was granted above the requested assistance by the Obama administration. Tillerson says that Israel violated a memorandum of understanding that conditioned additional aid on Israel's promise not to lobby for an increase in assistance.
Tillerson's demand is receiving pushback from the White House and pro-Israel forces in the administration.
The former administration came under fire from congressional leaders and the pro-Israel community for conditioning U.S. military aid—a cornerstone of the U.S.-Israel alliance—on a provision that bars Israel from lobbying Congress for increased aid as a range of conflicts in the Middle East develop.
While Congress initially rebelled against this provision, and held up the Obama-era aid package in revolt, Tillerson is said to be lobbying for Israel to give back the additional aid to keep the country in line with the Obama administration's 2016 agreement, known as the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU.
Multiple sources who spoke to the Free Beacon said Tillerson's chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, personally called White House National Security Council official Dina Powell to relay Tillerson's position, which is said to have conflicted with the advice of career State Department officials who work on the Israel portfolio.
Tillerson spokesperson R.C. Hammond categorically denied these calls took place in a subsequent conversation with the Free Beacon.
Powell is said to have balked at the request and told Peterlin that any such move would have to be cleared with President Donald Trump, these sources told the Free Beacon.
Tillerson has been hoping to lobby in favor of calling on Israel to return the aid money during a meeting at the White House, according to these sources.
Knowledge of this discussion, initially disclosed by the Free Beacon, roiled pro-Israel congressional leaders and sparked Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) to contact the White House to register his opposition.
Cotton "strongly warned the State Department" last week "that such action would be unwise and would invite unwanted conflict with Israel," according to one senior congressional aide familiar with the situation.
It is unclear exactly where the issue stands presently, as the White House NSC and State Department declined to comment on the situation when approached by the Free Beacon.
The matter has fueled tensions between the White House and State Department, which have found themselves at odds on a range of key issues, including the U.S.-Israel alliance, the Iran portfolio, and other matters. Sources who spoke to the Free Beacon about the standoff have described Foggy Bottom as being in "open war" with the West Wing.
One veteran official with a major pro-Israel organization who has been working on the issue told the Free Beacon that Tillerson appears to adopting opposite policies of those endorsed by Trump.
I think that Tillerson is using this rather minor issue to assert his authority over foreign policy. It's a familiar argument. The president wants foreign policy controlled from the West Wing while his secretary of state is listening to the bureaucrats who man the various desks at Foggy Bottom.
Hint for Tillerson: The President always wins these arguments.
That Tillerson would seek to exert his authority at the expense of Israel is troubling. It's true that $75 million out of the more than $5 billion in military assistance to the Jewish state doesn't seem like a lot of money. But Israel is facing growing threats in the Middle East from Iran, from Hezb'allah, and Assad's Syria. And ISIS, while badly mauled by Syria and US-allied forces, still represents a threat on Israel's border.
An increase in threats demands an increase in aid. Tillerson should look for another issue to show the White House who's controlling American foreign policy.