U.S. Aid For Israeli Missile Shield Not A Game Changer

The $70 million in U.S. funds might sway some in Israel about an unilateral Iran strike, "but not Bibi."

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting in his offices in Jerusalem.

The Pentagon announced Thursday the Obama administration is sending $70 million to Israel to help it enhance its missile defense system, but it may take more than a massive check to comfort Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish state's hawkish top leader, when it comes to Iran.

The money comes on top of $205 million the U.S. has already spent on the Israeli shield known as Iron Dome, and the annual $3 billion in security assistance America sends to Israel. The Jewish state has three operational Iron Dome batteries, which have had a 90 percent success rate, the Jerusalem Post reported in March.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

"Operational batteries have already proven effective in defending against rocket attacks on Israel earlier this year," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement after a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Pentagon, referring to allegedly intercepted rockets from Gaza. "Iron Dome has already saved the lives of Israeli citizens, and it can help prevent escalation in the future."

U.S. and Israeli officials agree Iran is closer than ever to fielding an atomic weapon. From there, they diverge: Tel Aviv says it is ready to take out Iran's nuclear sites while Washington would prefer a slower approach based on ever-tougher economic sanctions to compel Iranian leaders to abandon its program.

President Barack Obama told a group of Israeli-Americans in March that he has "got Israel's back." Some pro-Israeli GOP lawmakers have their doubts, and Thursday's announcement of funds is unlikely to convince Israeli leaders they can wait longer and allow Washington's sanctions-based approach to play out.

"It could help bolster those within Israel who are opposed to a military strike against Iran's facilities, especially if U.S. military cooperation helps Israel defends itself against a potentially nuclear capable Iran," says Alireza Nader, an analyst at the RAND Corporation.

"The Iron Dome system could also bolster Israel's ability to counter Iranian supported groups such as Hezbollah," Nader says. "In addition, U.S. security cooperation with Israel could make Israeli leaders, and especially the public, feel more secure."

But changing Netanyahu's mind is another matter.

"U.S. help to Israel on missile defense is good policy. But it won't be enough to persuade Netanyahu to tolerate an Iranian bomb," says Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst who advises the CIA. "Maybe it can ease the pressure, combined with other measures, in the short term. And maybe a future Israeli prime minister would find it reassurance enough not to strike even if Iran crossed the nuclear threshold sometime in the future. But not Bibi."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report via the DOTMIL blog. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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