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Should Moguls Subsidize US Military Aid to their Favorite Nations?

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The Obama “scandal du jour” in the Israeli press focuses on the US president having turned down a $1 billion donation to Israel’s Iron Dome program that billionaire Sheldon Adelson offered in 2012.

The claim is structured around a few paragraphs gleaned from an in-depth Politico profile of President Barack Obama’s relationship with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough:

In 2013, [then-Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid used his open channel to float a proposal—not made public until now—that stunned Obama and his staff. Congress had just passed a funding bill for the joint Pentagon-Israel Iron Dome missile system when Reid fielded a phone call from Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas multibillionaire and GOP donor. Adelson made an offer: He would personally finance $1 billion for Iron Dome batteries, paid through the federal government, so committed was he to safeguarding the Jewish state.

“I’ll call the president right away,” an excited Reid told him, according to people with knowledge of the interaction.

Obama was thrown off his guard momentarily—“What?!” he asked Reid. When the president regained his footing, he told the leader to thank Adelson but that he didn’t think private financing of munitions would set a good precedent, and didn’t feel the need to loop McDonough into the decision-making process. The idea died.

In other words, Obama considered the idea so absurd that he saw no need to consult with his national security adviser about an American billionaire subsidizing US foreign policy by funding a specific military project for a specific state before rejecting it as a poor precedent for future policy.

To Politico author Glenn Thrush, it’s an instance of Obama asserting his independence from McDonough. But twisted by his critics, it’s just another example of Israel-hater-in-chief President Barack Hussein Obama jeopardizing the safety of the Jewish state by subjecting US military aid to Israel to institutional wrangling in Congress, while turning down a perfectly reasonable, well-meaning, and fiscally responsible offer to speed up and subsidize foreign policy.

A Jewish Telegraphic Agency news brief, with no byline, pointed out that “Israel has credited Iron Dome, which has been funded by the United States since early in Obama’s presidency, with saving countless lives during multiple wars with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.” As Politico and the news brief citing it both note, Congress had just voted to fund the Iron Dome when Adelson reportedly made his offer. Yet the only thing JTA finds “unusual” about this bizarre scenario is that Adelson–a longtime supporter of the GOP– would make this generous offer to a Democratic administration!

Herb Keinon of The Jerusalem Post, under the headline “Report: Adelson offered to pay $1b for Iron Dome batteries for Israel,” framed Adelson’s offer within the context of his philanthropic largesse:

Adelson, who publishes the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily, reportedly spent $100 million in the 2012 US presidential campaign in a failed attempt to defeat Obama.

He is also a huge contributor to Israel and Jewish causes. According to an article last month in The Jewish Journal, Adelson is slated to announce the establishment of a foundation that will allocate $200m. annually–half to Israel and Jewish causes, and the other half to medical charities.

The Israel business daily Globes ran the “revelation” under the headline “Adelson Offered $1b for Iron Dome but was Rebuffed,” a claim also made in the body the article:

Sheldon Adelson wanted to donate one billion dollars to the Iron Dome project, offering to channel the funds through the US government, but was rebuffed, according to a “Politico” report.

Globes‘ Washington correspondent Ran Dagoni insinuates that Obama’s rejection of the idea was personal, since Adelson is “a major contributor to the Republican party.” But in The Times of Israel, “Obama asked Reid to thank Adelson but turn him down” for the reasons noted in Politico piece: that the president did not think private financing of weapons systems to foreign countries was a good idea.

The normally circumspect Barak Ravid of Haaretz interjects a clandestine dimension to Adelson’s offer:

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson made a secret offer to U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013 to contribute a billion dollars out of his own pocket to produce an Iron Dome battery for Israel, Politico reported on Thursday.

According to the article, after Congress passed a new bill funding Iron Dome, Adelson called Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, asking him to convey a secret message to the White House with the billion-dollar offer. The money would go to the U.S. federal budget to develop additional batteries of the missile defense system.

Politico‘s assertion that Reid’s delivery of Adelson’s offer to Obama has “not been made public” stops well short of justifying the use of the word “secret” twice in two sentences.

Curiously, none of the articles structured around the Politico profile that deal with Adelson’s offer makes any mention of ongoing US support for Israel’s Iron Dome system, build by Rafael Industries. According to The Washington Times, around the time of Adelson’s reported offer in 2012:

The U.S. provided about $205 million to Israel in 2010 for the system and about $70 million this year, according to The Associated Press. Each interceptor missile costs about $40,000.

“Iron Dome has been an incredible success for U.S.-Israeli missile defense cooperation,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“This life-saving system has successfully intercepted approximately 90 percent of the enemy rockets it has engaged,” the California Republican said. “I am pleased to have been one of the earliest supporters and to have provided more than $200 million for additional Iron Dome batteries and Tamir interceptors in the [fiscal 2013] National Defense Authorization Act.”

The House’s version of the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act would provide about $168 million for general U.S.-Israeli missile defense cooperation, about $100 million more than what the Obama administration has requested.

The defense bill also proposes to authorize $210 million for the Iron Dome program for fiscal 2013 alone, and a total of $680 million to fund the Iron Dome system until 2015.

All of the coverage in the Israeli press has in common that it takes Adelson’s motives at face value while personalizing Obama’s reasons for turning down Adelson’s offer. Seizing on a few paragraphs from Politico whose subject is Obama’s relationship with his chiefs of staff, particularly McDonough, they tacitly accept the sincerity of Adelson’s offer without engaging in serious discussion, however brief, of the validity of Obama’s reasons for turning it down. What would be the broader implications of donor-directed private funding of the US federal budget? What if a wealthy mogul were to donate a billion or so to arm Kurdish rebels, or pro-Ukrainian nationalists in Crimea? What if a wealthy Saudi sheikh were to helpfully offer to contribute to US arming of anti-Shiite groups? Would any such an offer be discussed by a US president with his advisers or simply dismissed out of hand as ridiculous?

That Sen. Harry Reid would become “excited” at the prospect of an American mogul funding a pet defense project shows that his retirement this year is long overdue.

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