Report: Tillerson pushes for Israel to return millions in U.S. aid

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly has been pushing the Trump White House to demand that Israel give back to the United States millions of dollars in military aid. The Trump White House reportedly is pushing back on this demand. So are members of Congress, including our friend Sen. Tom Cotton.

Here’s the back story, as I understand it. Last year, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding U.S. aid to Israel. It replaced a 2007 MOU reached during the Bush administration.

The 2016 MOU raised the amount of U.S. aid to Israel over the next decade to $38 billion, or $3.8 billion a year. This represented a very slight increase over the $30 billion in the previous MOU. In constant 2016 dollars, the 2007 MOU pledged close to $36 billion in aid.

However, unlike the previous MOU, the 2016 document stipulated that Israel may not request any additional funds from Congress during the next decade nor accept any offered from 2017 to 2018. Under previous MOUs, Congress has regularly exceeded the minimum amount of aid pledged, e.g., by providing funds for Israel’s defense during major conflicts and extra allocations for the defensive Iron Dome anti-missile shield.

Notwithstanding the MOU, and quite likely in reaction to it, Congress decided to pledge an extra $75 million in aid to Israel. The vote was bipartisan. It is this money that Tillerson reportedly wants to reclaim. However, the State Department denies that he seeks to do so.

It seems to me that the United States, as a party to the MOU, has the right to relieve Israel from its obligations under it, especially the obligation not to accept money that Congress appropriates and the current president approves of spending. The MOU language represents yet another attempt by Barack Obama to extend his control over U.S. policy beyond the end of his administration. The appropriate response is “nice try.”

The U.S. would be within its rights to demand the $75 million back, but it is not required to do so. Thus, the question is whether demanding the return is good policy.

I agree with Sen. Cotton who reportedly believes such action would be unwise and would invite unwanted conflict with Israel, and has told the White House so. This apparently was also the position of longtime State Department officials working on the Israel portfolio. But, if reports are correct, Tillerson rejected this view in favor of State Department lawyers and members of his own staff.

Regardless of whether Tillerson is pushing to reclaim aid money from Israel, he has been a disappointment as Secretary of State. His line on Israel and the Iran deal, to name just two issues, seems at variance with the president he serves. And his suggestion that Trump does not represent “the American people’s values,” but rather “speaks for himself” probably should disqualify him from further service to the administration.

Tillerson has distanced himself from the president sufficiently to be welcomed back by corporate America and all the right clubs. A parting of the ways seems likely and perhaps desirable.