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Tillerson Backs Off Asking Israel to Return $75 Million in Aid

Sen. John McCain, R-Az., is pursued by reporters after casting a 'no' vote on a a measure to repeal parts of former President Barack Obama's health care law, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON – Israel will not have to return $75 million in U.S. security aid, as the State Department announced last week that Secretary Rex Tillerson will not push for a clawback.

According to reports, Tillerson was considering asking Israel to return $75 million in U.S. security aid, which Congress approved in 2016. President Trump has pitched himself as the most pro-Israel president ever, and the White House announced in May a $75 million commitment of support for Israel’s missile defense program. That amount would be in addition to funds committed through President Bush’s 10-year agreement reached with Israel in 2007.

The Obama administration secured their own deal with Israel in 2016, but President Obama’s memorandum of understanding prohibited Israel from requesting additional aid. The terms of the deal dictate that Israel return any funds that exceed the amount included Bush’s MOU for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

Many lawmakers criticized Obama’s stipulation, saying that it ties the hands of Israel and the U.S. and limits response to potential emergency situations in the turbulent Middle East region. Congress signed off on the $75 million package for Israel during government-funding negotiations at the end of 2016.

“They’re going to get the money. … Israel is an important, trusted ally of the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters at a press briefing. “That hasn’t changed and that won’t change. We have a strong relationship with Israel.”

The potential clawback drew criticism from Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who one week ago penned a letter to Tillerson asking that he drop the consideration. The senators argued that the $75 million return would “damage the U.S.-Israel security relationship, diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, and send a terrible message to allies and adversaries alike regarding the steadfastness of U.S. commitments.”

Cotton and Rubio cited the “flawed” Iran nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration, which freed up more than $100 billion in frozen assets for Iran – one of three countries the State Department has designated as state sponsors of terrorism. The lawmakers also pointed out that there are no other security-related MOUs that carry stipulations like the one Obama included, a provision that encroaches “on Congress’s core constitutional power to determine the national security interests of the United States and how best to use public funds to defend those interests.”

“If the United States were to seek those funds back at this time, it would send a message of irresolution to our strongest ally in the Middle East. And the move would be duly noted by our mutual adversaries in the region,” the letter reads.

Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein said in an interview on Friday that Trump has been a disappointment.

“I thought he was going to be the greatest pro-Israel president we’ve ever had,” Klein said. “I said that after he was elected, and now I’ve said publicly that I’ve spoken too soon, that he’s refused to move the embassy to Jerusalem.”

Trump promised during his presidential campaign that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would further solidify U.S. support for Israel in the region. Klein said that White House officials maintain that the administration will eventually move the embassy.

“All the people in the White House swear to me he will move it,” Klein said. “The question is not when but if, so they keep telling me he’s going to move it. Only time will tell, but he hasn’t yet.”

He added that Trump did not mention the word “Jew” in his Jan. 27 statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The potential clawback request from the State Department, Klein added, is further evidence of hostility coming from Tillerson, who he criticized for not recognizing the Western Wall as being located in Israel. He also blasted the secretary for blaming Israel for complications in the region in a recent Arab-Israeli report.